What Good are Righteousness and Wisdom? part 2 (Ecclesiastes 7:19-22)

We noticed last week that Solomon, in dealing with the inequities of life, wondered what value wisdom and righteousness have.  If the wise and righteous die early and have troubles, what use are they?  Solomon continues that theme in v. 19…

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. 21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others. 23 All this I have tested by wisdom.  I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters.  He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things– 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found.  One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

You can see that Solomon is still on his quest to make life meaningful.  Even when he did not have all the answers, he still wanted to know the right way to live.  Wisdom does benefit us.

Elsewhere the Bible says that wisdom is pricier than pearls (Job 28:18) and “better than jewels” (Proverbs 8:11).  “How much better to get wisdom than gold!”  King Solomon said in one of his wise proverbs (Proverbs 16:16).  “The fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook” (Proverbs 18:4).  Earlier in this very chapter the Preacher told us that wisdom can be a life-saver (see Ecclesiastes 7:12).

Here he says that it will make us strong: “Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city” (Ecclesiastes 7:19).

Righteousness may not always protect us from adversity (vv. 15-16), but wisdom will help guard us against it (v. 19).

In this example Solomon invites us to imagine a city with ten rulers.  There is always strength in numbers, so this city is well off.  However, they would be even better aided even by one man with wisdom.

Wisdom governs thought; so the wise person knows how to think about things in a God-centered way.  Wisdom governs the will; so the wise person knows what choices to make in life.  Wisdom governs speech; so the wise person knows what to say and what not to say.  Wisdom governs action; so the wise person knows what to do in any and every situation.  Take hold of wisdom, and it will make you strong.

Wisdom is necessary because being right does not protect completely (v. 20).  

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

Solomon had expressed something similar in Proverbs 20:9, with the question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?  The expected answer, of course, is “No one can say I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin.  No one!”

It also surfaces in Solomon’s prayer for the inauguration of the temple in 1 Kings 8:46-51.  Notice in the very first verse…

46 “If they sin against you–for there is no one who does not sin–and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, 47 yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ 48 if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace).

We are all sinners.  We will sin, and our only recourse is to confess our sins to God and receive His forgiveness.

This verse, along with verse 29, show that Solomon recognizes that depravity affects everyone and everything they do.  A wise man will recognize this sinfulness in others and in himself.  I am a sinner; you are a sinner.  We all are sinners.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

And Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6a)

In 1908, The Times newspaper asked a few authors to contribute on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?”  G. K. Chesterton submitted the briefest response.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

What is wrong in my life?  I am.  What is wrong in my marriage?  I am.  What is wrong in my work?  I am.

We all are sinners.  Everything is broken.  We need to remember that.

The quest for perfection is futile in a fallen world, and even the most energetic and valiant efforts to achieve righteousness will be mixed with evil.  This is what theologians call total depravity.  We have all joined our first parent in his rebellion, and thus we have all experienced brokenness!

This verse describes the plight of man from the beginning.  It recalls God’s judgment of humanity before the worldwide flood.  In Genesis 6:5 God declares very plainly:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 

In the words of the General Confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.”  Thus, there are sins of omission and commission.

Paul, quoting from Psalm 14, says…

10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  (Romans 3:10-12)

Sin is depicted in many ways throughout the Scripture.

“Sin can be seen as transgression, which presupposes laws that are being transgressed.  Sometimes sin is portrayed as a power that overcomes us.  Frequently sin is tied ineluctably to idolatry.  Sin can be envisaged as dirt, as missing the target, as folly, as tied to the ‘flesh’ (a notoriously difficult concept to capture in one English word), as unbelief, as slavery, as spiritual adultery, as disobedience” (Fallen, ed by Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, p. 27)

So, it is wise to understand both that we are sinners, and that we are married to sinners, and work with sinners, and play with sinners, and live in a world of sinners.

If a ruler has too high a view of human nature, he will make one of two mistakes.  He will be overly strict and unwilling to overlook common human frailties.  Or he will be too lenient and let the people run rampant on the assumption that they will naturally do what is right.

Don’t look for perfection in yourself or in others.  There is no-one who ever gets it right all the time, says Koheleth: everyone makes mistakes. 

Solomon illustrated the fact—in verses 21 and 22—that no one is perfectly righteous.  If you think you are perfect, just ask those closest to you if you are (v. 21).  If people are honest with themselves, they will admit that they are not perfect (v. 22).

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

No one is free from sin, and this should have an effect on the way one responds to reports. There is much more than a mere prohibition against eavesdropping in v. 21.  If one hears rumors and discovers a curse that has been uttered, one should not respond foolishly; rather, one should look at one’s own failings.  Like Tommy Nelson says, “Don’t be surprised that some people don’t like you.  And don’t be surprised that, because of your sin, some of them have a good reason to dislike you!” (The Problem of Life with God, p. 117)

Few of us are immune to other’s opinions about us.  How we hang on every word of praise and defend ourselves against every criticism.

Chuck Swindoll says this about both the flattery of praise and the sting of criticism:

When we receive lavish praise, we should not let it inflate our egos nor ascribe to it undue importance.  Wisdom equips us to keep our feet anchored in reality while others are trying to lift us into an undiscerning dreamworld.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 72)

Sometimes we receive unjustified and untimely criticism from others–even from those individuals who are closest to us.  If we put stock in all the “bad press” we receive, we will end up with a distorted view of ourselves that could cause us to become intimidated, defeated, and guilt-ridden.  Wisdom can help us separate valid and valuable criticism from that which is inaccurate and destructive.  Solomon also reminds us in these verses that we are sometimes guilty of judging others falsely.  Acknowledging this fact can prod us to abstain from giving false criticism as well as help us handle unjust remarks when we receive them.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 72)

First, in integrity we should close our “heart” if not our ears to what other people are saying about us.  To take seriously the words of others by mulling them over is to put ourselves at risk of being hurt or of judging others harshly.  The picture of the “servant cursing” (or perhaps “demeaning” or “disparaging”) the owner makes the situation both realistic and graphic. 

Second, in integrity we should face our own propensity to sin by remembering the times, whether in words or by thoughts (“heart”), we have spoken badly of others and heaped harsh wishes on their heads.  “Judge not, that you be not judged” was Jesus’ way of putting this matter (Mt 7:1).  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 171-72)

This is one of the ways we know that we are all sinners—not only have others said hurtful things about us, but we have said hurtful things about others.

Because we are sinners we all need grace, and we need to extend grace to others.

What Solomon says here is excellent advice, says Derek Kidner, “since to take too seriously what people say of us is asking to get hurt, and in any case we have all said some wounding things in our time.”

Even if we do not have servants to curse us, sooner or later we are bound to overhear somebody saying something about us that may be unkind or untrue.  Usually, our first reaction is to get angry and feel wounded.  What we ought to do instead is let it go, realizing that it was never intended for us to hear anyway and may well have been spoken in a moment of weakness or misjudgment.  It is foolish for us to eavesdrop.

“If all men knew what each said of the other,” Pascal darkly observed, “there would not be four friends in the world” (Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, The Harvard Classics, Vol. 48, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), p. 45). 

If we are wise, we will be careful not to take too much interest in what other people say about us: “Listeners, standing upon the tip-toe of suspicion, seldom hear good of themselves.”

This is a lesson that Lucy learned when she looked inside the magician’s book, a story told in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.  As she was leafing through a book of magical incantations, Lucy saw a spell that would enable her to hear what her friends were saying about her.  Her curiosity got the best of her, and foolishly she cast the spell.  Soon she could overhear Marjorie Preston telling Anne Featherstone that although Lucy was “not a bad little kid in her way,” she “was getting pretty tired of her before the end of term” (C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), p. 143).  It would have been wiser for Lucy to leave well enough alone rather than to ruin a reasonably good friendship.

Both critical remarks and flattering words can be our ruin.  It is best not to listen in.

Qoheleth reminds us that at times we have not been careful about our own speech.

“Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:22)

Think about it.  This is reality.  We have all said things behind someone’s back that we wouldn’t dream of saying to their face.  Sometimes we have spoken out of frustration, or out of a desire to make ourselves look better.  Sometimes we have misspoken because we haven’t bothered to get all the facts.  Other times, our criticisms were really more about what is wrong with us than what is wrong with someone else.

“The fact that we often speak ill of others should make us less open to take offence at what is said of ourselves, and prepared to expect unfavorable comments” from others.

Whatever the reasons, there are times when we ourselves are guilty of unkind speech.  We are living proof that we are sinners (v. 20, 22).  Since we fail to live up to God’s standards, we should be slow to judge other people and slow to take to heart any negative things others say about us.

If we are wise, we will remember that we (and others) are both finite and fallen.  We will make allowances for one another.

In his book Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon gave a chapter to this verse, which he titled “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.”  In that chapter he gave wise advice to pastors and Christian workers that they should sometimes (if not often) simply overlook unkind and thoughtless things others say and do.  We would not want to be judged by our worst moments; and thus we should not judge others by their faults and failures.  He went on to say, “You cannot stop people’s tongues and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken.  There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do.”

Only because of God’s grace can we be free of sin.  As believers in Jesus Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are no longer under the dominion of sin.  However, we still battle, like Paul did in Romans 7, doing what we don’t want to do.

We are, in the words of Martin Luther, simul Justus et Peccator, simultaneously justified and sinners.  We are declared righteous positionally while we still struggle with sins due to still being in these mortal bodies.

But because we have been forgiven, we can forgive others.  It is the only way relationships can work well, if they are greased by grace, if we recognize that we are all sinners in need of and having received grace.

Since we are all justified sinners (those who are believers in Jesus Christ) we don’t expect perfection from others.  We are not surprised when others let us down.  We give grace because we have been given grace.

As justified sinners, we need more than anything to guard our tongues.  Why?  Because as Solomon says, and James agrees, out of the same mouth can come “blessing and cursing” (James 3:10).  Apparently, this wild thing we call the tongue cannot be tamed.  But since the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart, we can guard our tongues by guarding our hearts.  We guard our hearts by being wary about what we focus upon, that we allow our hearts to be attracted to through the eye gate and the ear gate.

We can guard our hearts by doing what Paul recommends in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

If we focus on these things, then our mouths will speak these things.  We will then, through our words “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

What Good are Righteousness and Wisdom? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18)

We’ve noticed in Ecclesiastes 7 that Solomon realizes that he needs to accept the sovereignty of God over all of life.  He won’t always get answers and things won’t always turn out the way they should, but God is in control.  Knowing that theologically, however, does not mean that it is easy to work that out in the inequities and confusions of everyday life.

This disquiet over the “unfairness of life” is expressed throughout the remainder of Ecclesiastes 7, starting in verse 15…

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.  Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool.  Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. 19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. 21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others. 23 All this I have tested by wisdom.  I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters.  He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things– 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found.  One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

Solomon begins with a summary statement: “In my vain life I have seen everything.”  That’s almost like the exasperated, “Now I’ve seen it all.”  In other words, as I’ve gone through this life, what I’ve experienced has been disappointing and confusing.

If there is a serious question in life that needs a mature, well-thought-out answer, it is the question, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?”  Have you, or someone you know, ever asked that question?  It is a common objection to Christianity from atheists.  They argue that if God is good, then good people shouldn’t suffer.

But they do.

That is what Solomon starts with in verse 15:

“There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15).

This is the exact opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God.  If life works out like it should in a moral universe, then righteous people should be rewarded with long life and prosperity, while the wicked should suffer adversity.  But all too often we see it play out exactly like the Preacher says, the good die young and the ungodly keep on living and prospering.

The Jewish people, especially, believed as they were taught—that God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience.  Didn’t God tell the people that the obedient would live long (Exodus 20:12; Deut. 4:40) and the disobedient would perish (? (Duet. 4:25-26; Psalm 55:23).

The book of Job deals with this question, as well as Asaph in Psalm 73.

The problem is, according to Cornelius Plantinga, that things are “not the way they are supposed to be” because of sin.  Because of the curse and because of personal sin, life is often “unfair.”

Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day.  Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers get convicted, but instead of dying, they get life in prison.  It’s just not fair!

Why did Betsy Ten Boom die in a Nazi concentration camp?  This holy heroine, who mentored her sister Corrie, died without a husband or children.  If I were God, I would have saved that woman, given her a husband, and let her have fifteen kids all greater than she.  Here was this ideal woman who died a horrible death in the most atrocious conditions.  Why?

We have a hard time understanding this, especially when our perspective is “under the sun.”  Asaph was only able to understand things when he took an eternal perspective, then he realized that he would experience glory with God while the wicked would be destroyed (Psalm 73:17-24).  Paul reinforces this eternal perspective in Romans 8:18 and 28, as well as 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

Now, verses 16-18 may at first seem to be saying, “Don’t overdo it.  Play it safe.”  It seems to be saying to live in moderation.  Don’t be too righteous or too wise.  This is what the ancient Greeks and Romans called the “golden mean.”  The golden mean or golden middle way is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. It appeared in Greek thought at least as early as the Delphic maxim “nothing in excess” and emphasized in later Aristotelian philosophy.  For example, in the Aristotelian view, courage is a virtue, but if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness, and, in deficiency, cowardice.

Of course, in some ways this is the way people think today.  I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to about salvation in Jesus Christ say to me, “I hope I’ve been good enough.”  They seem to think that if they’ve done just a little more good than bad, that it is enough to impress God and find approval with Him.

Solomon is not championing mediocrity.  If we follow Paul’s example, we know we should “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Solomon is not telling us to play the game right to so we can win it.  Don’t be a calculator.  Righteousness doesn’t always pay; sometimes wickedness does, therefore figure out how to play the game so that you can win, is the way these people think.

But in verse 16, as Warren Wiersbe points out, the verbs carry the idea of reflexive action.  In other words, he was warning them against self-righteousness and the pride that comes when we think we have “arrived” and know it all.  Solomon seems to be making in clear in v. 20 that there are no really righteous people “who does good and never sins.”  So, he is telling people neither to pretend to be righteous nor to pretend to be wise.  He doesn’t commend being so bent on being holy or informed that one forgets the grace of God.

After all, if God’s standard is perfection — if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength — then how could anyone ever be “overly righteous”?  No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are.  Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think they are good enough for God.  This leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a “peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded” (Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 163).

In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous.  We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment.

Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot.  When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, “I don’t deserve to be treated like this.  Doesn’t God know who I am?”  It is also a very short step from there to saying, “Who does God think he is?”

So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, “too righteous.”  In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that “stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward” us as much as we think we deserve.

This is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course.  The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17 when he tells us not to be too wicked.  His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity.  When it comes to sin, even a little is too much.  His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does.

The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”  But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed.  “Don’t be a fool,” the Preacher is saying. “If you live in sin, you will perish.”

So there are two dangers, two poles between which we live.  One is the temptation of the religious person—self-righteous, like the elder brother in Luke 15.  We believe because of our sacrifice and service to God that He owes us a good life.

Tim Keller reminds us: “The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.  It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.”

The other is more a temptation for the non-religious person, the younger prodigal, and that is unrighteousness, to live in self-indulgent sin.

But there is a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God.  Qoholeth says, “It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them” (Ecclesiastes 7:18).

This verse is somewhat difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to “take hold of this” and not to withhold our hand “from that,” he is looking back to the advice that he gave in verses 16–17.  He is saying something like, “The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one’s native wickedness to run its own course.”

We are to grab hold of that righteous but not self-righteous path with all our might.  It is hard to stay balanced.  We naturally swing the pendulum from one side to the other.  But we need to maintain a humble commitment to righteousness.  When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously.

To say it more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God.  Notice in verse 18 that the person who “fears God” will escape the dangers of death and destruction.  The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator.  When we get to the very end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.

To fear God is to revere God.  It is to acknowledge that God exists, that He has the authority to direct our lives, and that He is always watching us and will hold us accountable.

You know how much better you act or work when someone is watching you.  Realize that God is always watching you, and He even knows what you are thinking and feeling.  Fearing God means we take all that seriously.

Fearing God means that we acknowledge His authority over our lives—that He is God and we are not.  It means holding Him in awe for His majestic power, having respect for His holiness.

The fear of God will also keep us from living a wicked life, because when we understand his holiness, the last thing we will want to do is fall under his judgment.

Jesus Christ came to give us His wisdom and righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).  Outside of God’s grace, you and I don’t have the righteousness or wisdom that we need to help ourselves.

John Newton, the former slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” once said: “When I get to heaven, I will be amazed at three things.  I will be amazed at those I though would be there who are not there, those I did not think would be there who are there, and the fact that I am there at all.”

Early in his ministry the apostle Paul called himself “the least of the apostles.”  Later on he said that he was the least of all Christians.  Then later in life he said that he was “the chief of sinners.”  The older he got the more he abhorred his own sinfulness and stood in awe of the grace of Jesus Christ through the cross.

The image above is a diagram created by Paul Miller called “the Cross Chart,” and it is one helpful way of understanding growth in the Christian life.  As you grow, your estimation of God’s holiness increases, your estimation of yourself decreases, and your appreciation for the Gospel of grace expands to fill the gap.  These three things are not objectively changing, but your awareness of them is.  (If you leave off or distort one of those three elements of the chart, you’re in trouble.)

It can be extremely discouraging to fixate on that bottom line, the decreasing estimation of oneself.  Over time, God works against our self-deception, lifts our self-imposed blindness to what’s inside of us.  Bit by bit, he allows us to see ourselves as we truly are.  If he did this all at once, we’d probably go insane with depression.  But, in his grace, he takes time to show us how bad things really are in our hearts, in our flesh (and he offsets that painful discovery by granting us deeper trust in his gracious love).  We’re not actually getting worse, but we’re seeing our sin more clearly, so it might feel that way.  In actuality, we are likely growing in holiness.

There’s another way to understand this dynamic of feeling worse about ourselves as we grow in Christ.  The Christian life is a battle of spirit versus flesh.  I’m not sure how to explain this on a metaphysical level, but we’re somehow torn between warring factions in our persons.  There’s the self-in-itself, “the old man,” the dead and dying flesh indwelt by sin… and there’s the self-in-Christ, “the new man,” the reborn and living spirit indwelt by God’s Spirit.  These two are locked in mortal combat. (The good news is, because of Jesus, there’s already a clear winner.)

As we grow in Christ, the battle becomes sharper, more defined, more intense.  We learn no longer to “fight” the sinful flesh by means of sinful flesh.  For example, we no longer suppress our sinful anger by means of our sinful pride.  (That’s the only way to “fight” available before becoming a Christian—but it’s not really a fight, is it?)  As Christians, we know the only way to kill our sin is by the Spirit, by growth in grace, by Gospel-changed motives.  Our spirits grow stronger as we fix our eyes on Christ, but when we “let our guard drop,” our sinful flesh flails about unchecked, like a desperate, wild animal that sees an opening and goes for it. It is now less restrained by other sinful motives, so it lashes out more visibly and aggressively when not restrained by the power of the Spirit.  So, in a sense, displays of the flesh may indeed grow worse; your angry outbursts might be louder or more heated.  But, ultimately, your faith is on a general trajectory of growth, and those displays will probably be fewer and farther between as the fruit of the Spirit grow in you.

The key to encouragement through this war is fixing your eyes on the Gospel.  Like the cross chart above, you need to have a greater vision of God’s grace to you in Jesus Christ, to keep you from despairing as your estimation of yourself tanks.  “Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  He has already gained the victory over all your sin, and he shares his righteousness with you freely as a gift of his grace.

When John Newton was about to pass away, a young pastor by the name of William Jay came to ask him for some pearls of pastoral wisdom.  Here is what Newton said:

“Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

John Newton was preaching the gospel to himself, something we need to do every day.

Living Life with Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11-14)

In Ecclesiastes 7 Solomon has been promoting a call to discernment.  Sometimes we have to discern between things that are good and things that are bad; other times we discern between the good and the best.  Solomon has used the form “better than” throughout Ecclesiastes 7:1-11 to encourage us to choose the best out of life.

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. 7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. 

Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–14).

In all of these varied exhortations about life and death, about wisdom and folly, about waiting patiently to see what God will do, the Preacher is teaching us the right way to live and to look at life.

He ends these exhortations by restating the value of wisdom, which he says

11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. 

A fool squanders his birthright (cf. Luke 15:11–32), but wisdom is good with an inheritance and enables one to make good use of it.  Wisdom is similar to money in that both offer the possessor some real protection against the misfortunes of life.  A point in favor of wisdom, however, is that it preserves the life of him who has it.  As a general rule, living wisely receives God’s blessing, including long life, even if it cannot provide eternal life.

Prosperity is a good thing, especially if one has wisdom.  This allows him or her to deal with adversity.

Money is indeed a shadow.  It “brings many new friends” (Prov. 19:4), protects from foes, and secures many external blessings. Thus “the rich man’s wealth is his strong city.  The ransom of a man’s life are his riches.” (Prov. 10:1513:8.)  But they “profit not in the day of wrath.” (Prov. 10:2.)  

But the value of wisdom is greater.

What’s so valuable about wisdom?

First, wisdom enriches.  A wise father once said to his sons, “I give you good precepts” (Proverbs 4:2).  If the father gave boring precepts, or useless precepts, then the son may have a reason not to listen.  But the wise instruction of the father is valuable.  We hear of the richness of wisdom in Proverbs 3:13-14 which says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.”  Would you turn down a bag full of silver and gold?  I don’t think I would!  But if I had a bag full of silver and a bag full of wisdom.  Which would you choose?  Get wisdom.

Wisdom not only enriches, it protects.  “Do not forsake her (wisdom), and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you” (Proverbs 4:6).  Wisdom is not only like money, it’s also like a fortress.  And we need a fortress.  We need sound words to shield us from worldly propaganda, the temptation of the devil, and dumb ideas that rise up right out of our own flesh.  If you get wisdom, you can stand against the enemy.  He will fire those arrows at you and you’ll deflect them all day!  Oh, how dreadful it will be for those who laugh at the teaching of wisdom’s protection when they find themselves face to face with the most vicious enemy they’ve ever seen.

Third, wisdom exalts.  “Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you” (Proverbs 4:8).  Wisdom always lifts up.  You can count on it.  The person who gets wisdom will do what is honorable and in the end be esteemed for it.  On the other hand, the pursuit of fame and stardom is the distortion of this principle.  Those who lust after the glory that comes from man forsake the pursuit of wisdom.  And in the end, such people will be sitting in the worst seats at the table.

Along with exalting, wisdom beautifies.  “She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:9).  Wisdom will bring marvelous realities into your life.  If you don’t get wisdom then your life will be dull, drab, and dreary.  If you get wisdom, your life will be full of the opposite.  You will look upon glorious, splendid, and magnificent things.  If this son gets wisdom, if he holds fast to it, he will be able to sit down at the end of his life and say to God, “You have done glorious things.”

Here’s a summary of the value of wisdom.  The wise father says, “Keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4).  Live an enriched life.  Live a protected life.  Live an honorable life.  Live a beautiful life. (The preceding five paragraphs are from Jared Longshore’s article at https://founders.org/2018/05/01/the-value-of-wisdom/)

Verse 12 continues the comparison between wisdom and money.

12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. 

Both can protect a person.  The Preacher knows all too well that money does not last forever. But as long as we have it, money is useful in providing some protection against the practical difficulties of everyday life.  Money, after all, buys food, clothing and shelter.

If you have money, when adversity strikes—the loss of a job, a sputtering economy, a natural disaster—you have some shelter and security.  The word protection here is more literally translated “shade.”

Monetary savings is a protection on many fronts.  For example, it protects against a reversal such as sickness or job loss. Money can also work as a sort of protection against foolishness. It might allow us time to reflect and pursue understanding.

Similarly, wisdom is a protection for the soul.  It helps us deal with the reality of death.  It guards us against the folly of rash anger.  It helps us take a long-term view of what God is doing in the world.  Wisdom may even save our souls, for the Preacher claims that it “preserves the life of him who has it” (Ecclesiastes 7:12).   That the wise normally live longer than the foolish is a theme of the Scriptures (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:3).

A wise man can save a city of few people from a powerful king (9:13-15).  Wisdom protects against bodily injury (10:8).  Wisdom produces energy and makes one resourceful (4:5).  Wisdom helps a person get along with people, especially with those in high positions (7:9).  Wisdom makes for needed follow-through in tackling tough challenges (7:8).  In ways far too numerous to mention, wisdom gives and preserves a person’s life.

True spiritual wisdom gives us spiritual vitality as long as we live, and when it comes time for us to die, it will lead us to everlasting life.

Of course, wisdom is personified as the person of Christ and “in him was life” (John 1:4).  The gift of everlasting life has now been earned for those who trust in Jesus by the incarnation, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who rightly declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

The point is not to set wisdom on the same plane with material possessions.  These riches (vv 11a, 12a) are used to enhance the value of wisdom.  Wisdom is consistently pegged higher than gold or silver in the tradition (Prov 3:14; 8:19; 16:16). The profit (יתר yōtēr, יתרון yitrôn, vv 11b, 12b) is life.  Both wisdom (Prov 31:10–31) and money (Prov 13:8) keep their owner alive, although no one can escape death.

It is clear in the book of Ecclesiastes, as in Proverbs, that it is good for a person to be wise, whether he be rich or poor.  And it is bad to lack wisdom, to be a fool, no matter how rich a fool he might be.

Money can protect us from a lot of things in this life, but it can’t protect us as well as wisdom.

The optimum is to have wisdom and money.  Like Abraham and Job in the end (Job 42), he has been immeasurably blessed materially, but more importantly, he has the God-given wisdom of trusting in God which keeps everything in its proper perspective, allowing him to enjoy the gifts of God without being corrupted by wealth in the process (Eccles. 7:7).

Charles Ward had this kind of wisdom.  Ward served in the Union Army as a sergeant with the 32nd Massachusetts Volunteers.  In one of his last letters home, he wrote, “I hope I may come home again but life here is uncertain.”  The soldier was right about the uncertainties of life and death because a few days later he was mortally wounded in the bloody wheat field at Gettysburg.  Although he lingered for a little while, Ward died within the week.  In his last letter home he wrote, “Dear Mother, I may not again see you but do not fear for your tired soldier boy.  Death has no fears for me.  My hope is still firm in Jesus.  Meet me and Father in Heaven with all my dear friends.  I have no special message to send you but bid you all a happy farewell.  Your affectionate and soldier son, Charles Ward.” (quoted in Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking–Penguin, 2006), p. 237)

Wisdom is able to help us when life doesn’t turn out the way we expected.  That’s what the next two verses are about.

13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. 

Our wisdom is limited.  We cannot figure out everything that God does.  Some things will always be a mystery to us.  “Through wisdom they can analyze their problems, verbalize them, learn to cope with them, and even gain a measure of protection from them, so that their lives are preserved (7:12).  However, when it comes to analyzing many intractable problems and actually fixing them, even the wisest of people are powerless.  They cannot change their crooked circumstances, which persist as facts of life in this sinful world” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 254).

In fact, we cannot even change our own moral or physical crookedness.  Solutions can only come from outside of ourselves, from God Himself.

True God-fearing wisdom looks at what God has done, or is doing, and lets God be God.  As James Bollhagen reminds us, “Recognizing the limitations of human wisdom may be the wisest thing a person can ever do” (Ecclesiastes, p. 254).

When the Preacher talks about something “crooked,” he is not referring to something that is morally out of line, as if God could ever be the author of evil.  Instead, he is talking about some trouble or difficulty in life we wish we could change but cannot alter.  Physical disabilities, relational conflicts, even death lie in view here.

Verse 14 affirms the reality we all know: There will be good days and bad days.  There will be days straight as an arrow and days that are as crooked as a mountain road.  We live in a fallen world of twists and turns that cause our heads to spin and our stomachs to churn.

But God is sovereign over both.  He made both of them.  The Preacher is telling us that whether things seem crooked or straight, we need to see our situation in terms of the sovereignty of God.  According to the Puritan theologian Thomas Boston, if God is the one who made the crook in our lot, then we need to see that crook as the work of God, which it is vain for us to try to change.

This statement in v. 13 is somewhat different from a very similar statement in chapter 1.  There, in Ecclesiastes 1:15, Solomon had said: “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”  There is no mention of God at all.  But here in chapter 7 he brings God back into the picture.  He is looking at the world from God’s viewpoint, what we might call “above the sun” thinking.  He is categorizing both the straight and the crooked things in life under God’s divine sovereignty.

We cannot change God’s determined plans.  We don’t have the power to change His plans.  But far from driving us to despair, the sovereignty of God gives us hope through all the trials of life.

He is “working all things together for our good” according to Paul in Romans 8:28.  That does not mean that everything that happens in our life is good, but that He is able to take both the good and the bad and weave it together for a good purpose—to conform us to the image of His Son Jesus Christ.

Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God helps us know how to respond to all the joys and trials of life.  Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, there is always a way for us to glorify God.  The Preacher says, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

Some think that Solomon is sinking back down into despair here, but I think Solomon is just telling us how to respond rightly to the ups and downs of life.

By saying this, Qoheleth puts today and every day under the sovereignty of God.  Some days are full of prosperity.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all is right with the world.  There is food on the table and money in the bank. If there is work to do, it is the kind of work that we enjoy doing.  If we are taking the day off, we get to spend it the way we want to spend it, with the people we love.  Every such day is a gift from God that calls us to be joyful.

That is our job.  That is our role—to enjoy and appreciate the good things that God brings into our lives.

Here the Preacher celebrates the kind of meaningful hedonism that he has talked about several times already.  Every fine day, every good meal, every financial windfall, every meaningful conversation, every pleasurable experience, every success in ministry — every blessing of any kind at all — is another reason to return praise and thanks to God.

Our primary purpose, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, is to “glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”  He is our primary, unchanging joy.

But we are also to enjoy all things for His sake, for His glory.  Whenever we encounter God’s goodness through the good gifts that He provides, we are to rejoice and enjoy them fully.

But not every day is like that.  Some days are full of trouble, some months and years are full of trouble.  In this case the sun is dark, the birds are dumb, and everything seems wrong with the world.  Work is a chore, vacation is boring, and we may feel as if we do not have even one single friend in the world. 

Yet this also comes from the hand of God, who has literally everything under His control.  While we may not be able to be joyful on such a difficult day, we can remember that this too is from God.  We can rest in the fact that He has it all under control and that nothing thwarts His plans.

“Shall we receive good from God,” Job asked on the day of his adversity, “and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).  We should acknowledge that both the good days and the bad days come from the hand of God.

And realize that Solomon is not saying that the righteous experience all the good things and wicked people experience the troublesome times.  No, good times come to both the righteous and wicked in God’s common grace, and bad times afflict both the righteous and the wicked.

Warren Wiersbe explains: “”God balances our lives by giving us enough blessings to keep us happy and enough burdens to keep us humble.”

It is impossible for us to predict what will happen in the coming days.  As the Preacher says, “man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). We have no way of knowing whether the coming days will bring us greater prosperity or more adversity.

Living with this kind of uncertainty need not cause us anxiety or despair; rather, it should teach us to leave our future in the hands of God, to trust Him with everything. 

Most of us would prefer to control our own destiny.  But don’t miss the blessing by trying to change what cannot be changed.  Instead, we should entrust our lives to the loving care of our sovereign God.  If we do this, we will be well prepared for both the good days and the bad days.  In his comments on this verse, Martin Luther gave the following pastoral advice: “Enjoy the things that are present in such a way that you do not base your confidence on them, as though they were going to last forever . . . but reserve part of our heart for God, so that with it we can bear the day of adversity.”

Better Is…, part 3 (Ecclesiastes 7:7-10)

We gain wisdom through discernment, the ability to distinguish between two things and determine which is better for us.  Tim Challies says…

Discernment has both a theological and a moral dimension… The first category where we need to exercise discernment is that of truth and error in relation to what we believe about God.  The second category is that of right and wrong in relation to how we act.  The first category relates to truth and discernment and the second to God’s will and discernment.  These are two broad categories in which we need to exercise spiritual discernment.

One of the ways Solomon has been teaching us how to exercise discernment in the book of Ecclesiastes is through a series of “better than” statement in Ecclesiastes 7:1-11:

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. 7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.

Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–12).

So the last comparison in this passage (vv. 7-10), teaches us how to have a godly perspective about what is happening in the world.

Isn’t that something practical?  Don’t you feel like you need some help processing all that is going on in our world today?  Doesn’t it sometimes feel overwhelming and often confusing?

Solomon’s first statement is “Surely oppression drives the wise into madness and a bribe corrupts the mind.”

We should know, from Scripture, how important our minds are.  We are to “guard our hearts,” the center of our thinking, because as we think, so we are.  The word “oppression,” in Hebrew oshek, can mean extortion, having power over someone through financial straits.

It is uncertain whether the “wise person” is the perpetrator or victim of the abuse, though more likely the wise person is the victim in this case.  The proverb then describes this person’s distress at being victimized, or blackmailed.  Even wise people lack sufficient wisdom to always escape oppression and its consequences.  These kinds of situations can drive one to “madness.”

James Bollhagen takes the opposite approach, seeing the oppressor as the wise man.  He says, “Things forcibly taken from the oppressed turn a wise man into a fool.  Perhaps the ease with which the extortionist extracted his first payoff makes the prospect of a second payoff look even easier.  In no time, greed overwhelms wisdom” (Ecclesiastes, p. 244)

While the first part of verse 7 describes a situation in which someone is trying to extort money from you (or you from them), the second part describes a situation in which you are being offered money to use your power or status in an improper way.  Both adversity and prosperity tempt people to abandon a wise lifestyle for one of folly.  Or, as Tremper Longman says, “”… even a wise person can be made a fool when money becomes involved.” (The Book of Ecclesiastes, p. 185)

Frank Gaebelein warns:

If you hold an influential position, do not use it for personal advantage.  In particular, a bribe erodes character, making it susceptible to other forms of corruption.  Thus a reputation can be destroyed in a moment.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1174)

And David Jeremiah adds:

A bribe is nothing but a shortcut dressed in green.  It’s using money or some other asset to get your way without earning it.  It will corrupt your integrity and destroy the purity of your heart.  (David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 178)

Verse 8 then says…

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 

Well, that last part is pretty plain, but what does it mean that “the end of a thing” is “better…than its beginning”?

I think he means that there are many projects that don’t seem very promising at first, but the end will produce something meaningful.  Therefore, be patient.  Or, in some cases, it can be expressed by the saying that 95% of a task is getting started, but my how hard is the remaining 5%!  Therefore, finish what you’ve started.  I think we all need encouragement in that!

This is so true in the Christian life.  We are in such a hurry in our sanctification.  We want to be godly NOW, if not yesterday.  We wonder why it is taking us so long to get better.  We grow weary of sowing to the Spirit because we haven’t reaped anything yet.

But persevering obedience will eventually pay off.  Parents, don’t get discouraged at the process of discipling your children.  It may seem like nothing good is happening.  But the end of the thing is better than the beginning.

Nothing seemed to be going right for Christ, until the resurrection.  And ultimately He will return and defeat all His enemies.

In Charles Spurgeon’s devotional Morning and Evening, he comments on this truth:

Look at David’s Lord and Master; see His beginning.  He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Would you see the end?  He sits at His Father’s right hand, expecting until His enemies be made his footstool.  “As He is, so are we also in this world.”   You must bear the cross, or you shall never wear the crown; you must wade through the mire, or you shall never walk the golden pavement.  Cheer up, then, poor Christian.  “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.”

Be patient and stay faithful.

Patience is better than pride.  Patience is willing to let God be God and to wait on His timing and trust the process.  Pride believes God is beholden to me—to give me what I want NOW!

See, pride is in a hurry and it wants things done our way.  But patience, patience waits for God’s timing and it trusts that God’s way is the best way.  Patience means viewing difficult people not as a problem, not as a nuisance, not as an interference to our plans, but as actually having a role in God’s plan for us and in God’s plan for them.  If we can view our circumstances and those we interact with in this way, we won’t be so easily angered at them when they don’t go our way.

Pride will lead to anger—with God and others.  So verse 9 says…

Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.

Anger is not always a problem.  It is appropriate to be angry at injustice, especially when done to others.  It is appropriate to be angry when God’s name is being drug through the mud.

But anger is rarely righteous when it is “quick.”  That is why James so wisely says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Of course, Solomon himself touted the idea of being slow to anger.  In Proverbs 14:29 he says, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.”  In Proverbs 15:18 he says, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.”  Proverbs 12:16 says, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.”

All of these verses express the foolishness of flying off the handle.

We are neither to arouse our anger to quickly, nor to let it burn too long.

In Ephesians 4, Paul advocates:

26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.

So “be angry,” but realize the dangers in anger.  Don’t go there too soon and don’t stay there too long.  Let it motivate you to do what is right, not what is wrong.  Therefore, it is good to be slow to anger, letting your mind engage before starting your mouth.

In a recent interview with INC, Jonathan McBride, who served as the director of the Presedential Personnel Office in the White House, discusses leadership in crisis moments. Near the end of the article, McBride shares this insight:

You want people who will speak truth to power. In a crisis, you really don’t want to be “yessed.” But the main thing to tune in to is people who are calm, who think clearly. At the White House, we used to tell a story about an astronaut who posed a question to a group of people: “Say you’re at the International Space Station and suddenly your oxygen goes out. You know you’ve got about 10 seconds before you start to lose consciousness. What do you do?” People started blurting out all these things they would do first—and he interrupts and says, “No. You think for eight seconds, and you make one move.”

That would be a good formula for conversations—or arguments and fights—listen first, think for eight seconds, and then respond.

Anger lodges in the bosom of fools.  It is common for fools to spew out anger.  But a wise person is slow to anger and uses soft words (Proverbs 15:1).

Solomon said anger rests in the bosom of fools (Eccl. 7:9), indicating that the fool has embraced anger, making it his companion.  Just as it’s impossible for a Christian to believe in a sovereign God and have a “victim mentality,” so it’s impossible to be a grateful Christian (cf. 1 Thess. 5:18) and allow anger to be his companion.  Most anger is either a sinful attempt to control other people or fear related to something for which the believer is unwilling to trust God.  Either way, it’s an indication that an individual has never fully surrendered a particular area of his life to God.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 24)

By the way, Solomon is obviously giving us some “above the sun” information here.  He is pointing out how to live in a broken world with wisdom, making the best of it.

Patience is needed to see our resolutions and enterprises through to the end.  How often we embark on something with pride in our ability to carry it through but abandon it because of a few discouragements (v. 8)!  Then we may become angry and hit out at other people as an excuse for our own incompetence (v. 9).  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1174)

Verse 10 introduces us to another way to deal with our broken world…

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 

To paraphrase, “Ah, the good old days!  When I was a boy, gas was a nickel a gallon and young men wore their trousers above their bottoms, not below.”

Warren Wiersbe, as he often does, captures the futility of this verse:

“It has been said that ‘the good old days’ are the combination of a bad memory and a good imagination, and often this is true.” (p. 514)

Nostalgia causes us to look back on the former years as the better days.  People tend to isolate the good things from the past and celebrate “the good old days,” while forgetting the reality that everything was not all that good.

Nostalgia of this sort nauseates Pastor Solomon, for he knows, as we all should know, that each age has its own unique opportunities and challenges, and we cannot face the challenges of our age by pining after another.  To romanticize about the good old days is as useful a way as any of running away from the challenge and the opportunities of the present.

Derek Kidner warns: “To sigh for ‘the good old days’ is (we may reflect) doubly unrealistic: a substitute not only for action but for proper thought, since it almost invariably overlooks the evils that took a different form or vexed a different section of society in other times.” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 67).

Some say the past was better; others say the future will be better.  What both views have in common is that they rob today of the will to act.  Don’t belabor your tough life.  Be faithful to pursue the calling and use the gifts that God has given you for His glory.

Nostalgia is often a form of escapism, taking a vacation in the past instead of grappling with the present or looking in faith to the future.

C. S. Lewis offers us an “above the sun” perspective on what our longing for past joys really means:

C. S. Lewis said that nostalgia is the special emotion of longing, and it’s always bittersweet. When we feel nostalgia, we experience a feeling of something lost.  At the same time it’s a beautiful perception of what has been lost, and so we long for it.  Nostalgia is often fleeting, and yet if there is any pain, there’s also a kind of satisfying longing as part of it.  Now here’s what Lewis says: only children or the emotionally immature think that what they’re longing for is actually what they’re longing for.

The child thinks his memory of that beautiful hillside gives him a lovely feeling, so if he could go back to that hillside, he would have the lovely feeling all over again and for as long as he stayed there.  No, Lewis says, that is simply unwise.  When you mature, you realize that nostalgia plays a kind of trick on you.  It intensifies your emotions.  When you grow up, you realize that if you could go back to the hillside, it might be nice, it might be lovely, but it would also be ordinary in some ways, and simply going back to it would not reproduce that intensity of feeling. In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Lewis observes: 

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; for it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a far country we have not yet visited.

When you experience nostalgia, your heart is longing for a more beautiful person than you’ve ever met or a more beautiful place than you’ve ever known.

You think you’re longing for the past, but the past was never as good as your mind is telling you it was.  And, Lewis says, God is giving you in that moment one of the most profound glimpses of the intensity of perfection and beauty that you have actually yet to see.  What is in fact pulling on your heartstrings is the future: it’s heaven, it’s your sense of belonging and home that has just cracked the surface of your life, for just a moment, and then has gone. 

This perspective fits beautifully with the message of Ecclesiastes.  In Ecclesiastes 3, we see that God has placed eternity in our hearts.  We’re built for home, for a place we cannot yet see; and so when we get that flashing moment of nostalgia, it’s like tiny pinpricks of that eternal home breaking through into our present life.

Wise people understand God made us to long for him and for heaven.  They don’t look backward when they get nostalgic.  They allow the feeling to propel them forward. They look up to heaven and to home. (These insights from C. S. Lewis are from David Gibson’s article, “Let Your Nostalgia Point You Home.”)

Tom Constable concludes, “Impatience and pride (v. 8), anger (v. 9), and dissatisfaction (v. 10) might also lure him from the submissive attitude that is part of the way of wisdom.

Better Is…, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 7:5-6)

According to Proverbs, one of the key skills in developing wisdom is the act of discernment, being able to obtain sharp perceptions for the sake of judging well.  As we judge well, we choose the path that leads to satisfaction and flourishing; when we don’t judge well, we choose paths that lead to sorrow and diminishing.  Discernment involves choosing between alternatives.  It is a skill we all must learn.

There are several steps to discernment.

First, we must realize that there are absolute truths—truths that remain true for all people at all times in every culture.  God’s Word is truth and gives us clear examples of truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil.  From this, we can discern which path to take.

Jesus said it clearly, “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  In other words, judge on the basis of recognized standards of truth and justice.

Second, we need to ask God for help.  Not every situation is clear-cut between good and evil.

Early in his reign King Solomon said: “Now O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king instead of my father David, but I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.… Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:7, 9).

And the psalmist requested of God: “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments” (Psalm 119:66).

Third, we need to practice hating what is evil and loving what is good.  A detached stance towards either will soon lead us to not care enough to make good decisions.

Fourth, seek counsel.  We need the perspective of others to see things we cannot see.

Wise King Solomon emphasized this point in several of his proverbs.

“Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14).

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15).

Even though Solomon was granted so much wisdom and knowledge by God that rulers of other nations came to hear him (1 Kings 4:34; 10:4), he still recognized the value of seeking counsel from others.

Fifth, practice making good judgments.  Athletes and artists know that if they want to become good they have to practice, practice, practice.

The author of the book of Hebrews illustrates this point: “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

Sixth, choose your friends carefully.  Your friends will hold a lot of influence in your life.  Generally we listen to our friends without discernment.  We might suspect the words of others, but embrace the words of our friends without really thinking it through.

Addressing this concept, Solomon wrote: “The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26).

In the first century, Paul reiterated this timeless principle: “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). He also wrote that we should “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11).

Seventh, learn from your mistakes.  You will make mistakes; we all do.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, he similarly said: “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  Later, Paul explained, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The question is not whether we will sin.  That is a given.  What is important is what we will do after we sin.

Will we confess our sin?  Will we learn from your sin?

Solomon begins Ecclesiastes 7 with a series of “better than” statements.  These statements help us distinguish between two paths, one of which is better than the other.  These statements help us develop the ability to discern between two options and make the wise choice.

Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–12).

We looked last week at the “better than” statements relating to life and death.  Today we want to look at the statement which distinguish between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (vv. 5-6).

Verses 1-12 is the context:

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. 7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”  For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. 

The main thesis of vv. 5-6 is “All things considered it is wiser to live a life of thoughtful self-restraint than to pursue a life of hedonism” (Tom Constable).  These two options come from listening to two different sources with two different messages.

As he talked about the houses of mirth and mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:4), the Preacher drew a contrast between wise and foolish hearts.  The same contrast recurs when Qoheleth introduces a new topic with another comparison:

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.

Verse 6 says that we have two options, two ways we can spend our time, “to hear the rebuke of the wise” or “to hear the song of fools.”  Some translations render this offering from fools as not a simple, non-directed song, but rather praise, flattery.

Thus the Good News Translation reads, “It is better to have wise people reprimand you than to have stupid people sing your praises.”

Thus, the message seems to focus on pumping us up, making us feel good about ourselves.

In the context of vv. 1-4, it would seem that this is coming from those in “the house of feasting” rather than the “house of mourning” (v. 2) and the “house of mirth” where the “heart of fools” resides.

In other words, you can more likely avoid the “song of fools” by staying away from the parties.

The more serious problem with regard to this option is that it is the “song of fools.”

As you read through Proverbs, you come to realize that Solomon distinguishes between several types of fools.  The most innocent type is the naïve.  We all start out as naïve.  The most serious type, the one we want to avoid becoming at all costs, is the scorner, those that rail against and laugh at God.  These have lost all touch with reality.

In between there are three more types of fools.  The Hebrew word used here is kesil, which literally means “fat.”  The word denotes the type of person who makes the wrong choices because of their sensual appetites. 

As a result, he glories in that which he should be ashamed.  So Proverbs 10:23 says “doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, a kesil.”  His mouth will continually get him in trouble.  Proverbs 18:6-7 describes:

6 A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. 7 A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.

Here in Ecclesiastes 7, the mouth of this fool will be a snare to your soul, if you choose to listen to him, or her.

The reason why the “song of the fool” is a trap for you and me is found in Ecclesiastes 7:6:

6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.

The laughter, the gaiety, the joking around, the flattery of fools, does us no good.  Its vanity is illustrated from nature.  It is like “the crackling of thorns under a pot.”

Unless you’ve been camping this simile doesn’t mean much to you, but two things are at play.  First, there is a wordplay; and second, the illustration.

The pun ‘Like the sound of sirim (thorns) under the sir (pot, cauldron)’ is caught by Moffatt’s Like nettles crackling under kettles.  Thorns were a rapidly burning, easily extinguishable fuel in the ancient world.  They pop and fizzle, but they soon fizzle out.  Thus, they symbolize the brevity and shallowness of the “song of fools.”

Thus, Adam Clarke relates, “They make a great noise, a great blaze; and are extinguished in a few moments.  Such indeed, comparatively, are the joys of life; they are noisy, flashy, and transitory.”

Richard De Hann explains:

People in Palestine burned dried thorn bushes when they wanted a small amount of quick heat, but they knew they could not use such fuel to cook everything that required a high temperature over a sustained period of time.

Similarly, the merriment of the worldly crowd gives only temporary relief.  It does not solve any problems or bring about a change for the better in a person’s life-style.  The rebuke of a godly man or woman is far more valuable.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 105)

Philip Ryken says

Whenever we encounter a metaphor like this, we need to look for the point of comparison.  In what way is foolish laughter like an open fire fueled by branches from a thorn bush?  To begin with, they sound somewhat similar.  The noise made by the crackling of a fire is like the cackling of fools.  More importantly perhaps, a fire made of thorns is very short-lived.  Although it will flame up very quickly (another point of comparison — the fool is ready to laugh at anything), it will not keep burning for long, the way a fire does when it is fueled by logs or burning coals.  As a result, a thorny burning does not give off very much heat — “more flame than fire.”

Although laughter may come easily to the fool, it dies out quickly.  He who laughs the loudest will not necessarily laugh the longest.  Indeed, Jesus said, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).  Our Savior was thinking of the fires of the final judgment, when foolish laughter will perish forever.

Those who know not the gospel even try to laugh in the face of death.  Consider the well-known epitaph of the English poet John Gay: “Life’s a jest, and all things show it. / I thought so once, and now I know it.”

The alternative is to listen to the rebuke of a wise person.  That, according to Solomon, is better.  Of course, this is what most people don’t want to hear.  Their lives are left undisturbed, and maybe even temporarily lightened, by the “songs of the fool,” but rebukes may wound us and certainly are not designed to leave us undisturbed.  Most of us, however, would rather be comfortable than convicted, and changed.

So Solomon encourages us to listen to the rebuke of the wise.

One of the most loving things a person can do for you is to tell you that what you are doing is wrong.  Really. 

It might hurt.  That’s why Solomon says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).  The “songs of fools” (Eccl. 7:5) are likely the very same thing as the “kisses of an enemy.”

Of course, we don’t see them as an enemy.  Those who flatter us, who approve of us even when we are sinning, seem like friends.  In reality, they are not.  They are enemies in league with Satan.

But to be rebuked is definitely for your good.  Especially when it is done by a friend who truly loves you.  And, as Solomon says here, a wise friend.

Reproof is a fork in the road for a sinful soul. Will we cringe at correction like a curse, or embrace rebuke as a blessing? One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise and walk the path of life, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools careening toward death.

The Proverbial warnings against dismissing brotherly correction are staggering.  The one who rejects reproof leads others astray (Proverbs 10:17), is stupid (Proverbs 12:1) and a fool (Proverbs 15:5), and despises himself (Proverbs 15:32).  “Whoever hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10), and “poverty and disgrace come to him” (Proverbs 13:18).

But just as astounding are the promises of blessing to those who embrace rebuke.  “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) and prudent (Proverbs 15:5).  “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), loves knowledge (Proverbs 12:1), will dwell among the wise (Proverbs 15:31), and is on the path of life (Proverbs 10:17) — because “the rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15) and “the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Proverbs 6:23).

To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23), but to the one who despises it, “I will laugh at your calamity” (Proverbs 1:25–26).  

Ironically, Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes 7:5, “If you listen only to the laughter of fools, ultimate you will experience the laughter of God in times of trouble.”

It will be said of those who reject correction, “They shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices” (Proverbs 1:30–31), and it’s only a matter of time until they themselves will say, “I am at the brink of utter ruin” (Proverbs 5:12–14).

And when ruin comes for the fool who resists reproof, it will be sudden and devastating: “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing” (Proverbs 29:1).

The wise recognize rebuke as a gift of gold (Proverbs 25:12).  It is kindness, and a token of love. “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).

It is pride that keeps us from receiving a rebuke.  Oh, the person may deliver it, but we won’t hear it unless we humble ourselves and truly listen with an openness to learn and repent.

Kerry Nakatsu offers these helpful steps to receiving a rebuke (summary):

First, develop a positive attitude towards the possibility of being rebuked.  Second, listen to the entire rebuke without interrupting, or preparing a defense or arguing back.  Don’t go on the offensive.

Then, thank the rebuker for loving you enough to rebuke you.  Thank God for the rebuke.

Then confess your sin or fault on the spot and ask for forgiveness.

If you don’t agree with the rebuke, at least give time to think and pray about it.  Then go back and explain how their rebuke helped you (if it did).

Having someone in your life who has the courage to rebuke you is truly a blessing, one we should pray for and cultivate.  Invite someone you know and trust to be that person for you.

In Eccl 7:2-6, Solomon appears to censor laughter and happiness.  However, he is actually rejecting the senseless merriment that characterizes those who ignore life’s realities.  Solomon uses the phrases the heart of fools (v. 4), the song of fools (v. 5), and the laughter of the fool (v. 6) to describe those who mask their empty lives with mirth and folly.  (John A. Stewart, Lamplighters Self-Study: Ecclesiastes, 23)

Better Is…, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)

At the end of Ecclesiastes 6 the Preacher wondered how we can live well during our few and passing days on this earth.  He answers that question in chapter 7 by making a series of “better than” comparisons.  The Preacher is teaching us how to exercise discernment in choosing the way that we will live.

In Ecclesiastes 7-8 the theme is that God rules history and grants wisdom.  It contains five statements about God surrounded by wisdom statements akin to those in Proverbs.

In 7:13-14 the Teacher claims that God rules both good and bad times (cf. Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28; Isaiah 45:7) but does not explain to us what the future holds, and in 7:15-18 he counsels the fear of God as the means of taking a balanced approach to life (cf. 12:13).  The proverbs and observations in 7:1-12 and 7:19-8:1 suggest caution in thought and in relationships.  The Teacher’s conclusions about the sinfulness of human beings particularly urge caution (7:26-29), so one must be careful in all dealings with others.

The other references to God come after observations about kings and oppression (8:2-10), subjects quite common to Job and Proverbs.  Though the Teacher does not claim that the righteous will always prosper, he does state that those who fear God do fare better in life, in general, than those who do not (8:11-13).

At times injustice is pervasive (8:14), so people must enjoy life offered by the God who governs history (8:15).  Anyone who claims further wisdom than this claims more than is possible (8:16-17). 

This last statement may target Wisdom adherents who indeed believe that they know more.  God has the wisdom the Teacher lists in Ecclesiastes 7-8, but full knowledge still does not emerge.  The secret things belong to God.

So in Ecclesiastes 7 Solomon begins…

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. 7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”  For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. 11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. 

You will notice the change in the book of Ecclesiastes here.  While the early chapters contained extended argumentation, these verses have a variety of proverbs.  Some of them have related themes (like 7:1-4) but others are quite disparate.

Solomon begins with practical proverbs about the meaning of life and death (Ecclesiastes 7:1–4), about the difference between wise rebuke and foolish laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:5–6), and about waiting patiently as we look ahead to see what God will do (Ecclesiastes 7:7–10), followed by a statement summarizing the value of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:11–12).

Here in these early verses Solomon is dealing with our lot in life—either prosperity or adversity.  Both of these conditions, he noted, can have good and bad effects—depending on how a person responds to them.  Prosperity is not always or necessarily good (cf. 6:1-12), and adversity, or affliction, is not always or necessarily evil (cf. 7:1-15).  Actually, adversity is often a greater good than prosperity.

The Preacher begins by offering us wisdom for understanding the great matters of life and death. He begins with a double comparison:  “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

The first part of this proverb is similar to something that Solomon said elsewhere: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1).

Here in Ecclesiastes the Preacher compares a good reputation to the rich aroma of an exotic fragrance (see also Song 1:3).  He does this by making a Hebrew wordplay that is hard to capture in English, but perhaps this paraphrase comes close: “Fair fame is better than fine perfume.” 

This proverb may have been a popular saying in those days.  In the dusty communities of Biblical times, scented oils and other fragrances were valuable commodities.  Without perfumes, people would literally stink.  The mother rubbed the “good ointment” on her baby and supposedly got it off to a good start in life by doing so

Yet having a name that people admire for integrity is even more valuable.  With every comment we make and every action we take, we either build up or tear down our reputation.

There is a difference between character and reputation which we do well to pay attention to.

John Wooden, the most successful basketball coach in the NCAA with the UCLA Bruins, would tell his young men ““Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are.  Reputation is what people say you are. Reputation is often based on character – but not always.”

Dwight L. Moody said that character is “what you are in the dark,” when no one but God sees you.  We build character in private, gaining little victories over self.

Reputation is concerned with image.  Saul was an image manager.  He wanted to look good in front of the people even after not obeying God in 1 Samuel 15.

While we should want to have a good name before people, it is more important that we have a good character before the eyes of God.

Should we be concerned about our image, our reputation?  Yes, but we should be more concerned about our character.  For example, elders in the church are supposed to have a good reputation with those outside the church (1 Timothy 3:7).

Qoheleth calls us to wear the cologne of good character. Consider, therefore, what kind of name you are making for yourself. 

When people think about you (or talk about you), what character traits come to mind?  Are you cheerful, or critical?  Are you stingy or generous?  Kind or harsh?

Character is as character does, and sooner or later you will be known for the character you keep. Make a good name — not for yourself but for Jesus.

So Solomon begins with an obvious truth—a good name is better than fine perfume—and couples that with a more startling statement—the day of death is better than the day of birth.  This introduces the first of three shocking statements.  Verse 2 says its better to attend funerals than parties and verse 3 adds that sorrow is better than laughter.

What in the world is Solomon saying?

By the way, we especially need this in these days when COVID-19 and all its variants have us attending more funerals than we would like these days.  Instinctively we want to hide from this and numb of our pains.  Solomon is telling us, wisdom is telling us, not to do that.  Instead, we are to engage in the sobering realities of death, funerals and sorrow.

However, Solomon is not succumbing to a negative view of life full of doom.

Matt McCullough suggests two clarifications:

First, the Preacher has a specific kind of feasting and laughter in mind.  He’s not against having fun or appreciating the goodness and beauty in the world.  For all its moments of bleakness this book also celebrates joy in the good gifts of God (Eccles. 3:4; 5:18–20). Parties have their place.

But there’s a sort of feasting and laughter that’s deceptive and counterproductive.  It’s the sort that Derek Kidner describes as the “hectic, empty gaity of fools, quick to catch alight, quick to fade.”  This sort of levity is a substitute for careful reflection and honest emotional response to life.  It’s a strategy, willful or not, for avoiding whatever might weigh us down or spoil our good time.

Second, when the Preacher says that mourning is better than feasting or death better than birth, it’s not because sorrow and death are good in themselves.  This isn’t simply resignation, some nihilistic acceptance of the power of darkness.  It is rather that, as Kidner puts it, “the day of death has more to teach us than the day of birth.”

It’s not that death is better than life.  It’s that we have more to learn from the sheer fact that our lives will end than from the fact that we’re alive in the first place.

We need to “number our days,” (Psalm 90:12), realizing that our lives will end and we need to make the most of it instead of wasting it.

We learn these lessons not in the house of feasting, where quick-hitting pleasures keep our minds out of gear, but in the house of mourning, where we look long and hard at the truths that rightly break our hearts. “This is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2).

When the Preacher tells us it’s better to go to the house of mourning, he’s warning us not to numb ourselves with one diversion after another, living our lives like one long Netflix binge, hoping for happiness in that next episode.

But he doesn’t aim to depress us, either.  Perhaps the most surprising statement in these verses comes in verse 3: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”  The reward of sorrow is something better than laughter: genuine gladness.

Both the first day of life and the last day of life have something to offer.  There is great gladness in birth and yes, there is sadness in death.  However, as believers we have a wonderful hope, in which “to die is gain” and leaving this life is “better by far” (Philippians 1:21, 23).

When Didymus the Blind studied this verse, he commented that a believer’s dying day is best because it is “the end and termination of evil” “Commentary on Ecclesiastes,” in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon , ed. J. Robert Wright, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT 9 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), p. 249).

This is why the day of a believer’s death is the best day of all. “In the day of his birth he was born to die,” wrote Thomas Boston, but “in the day of his death he dies to live” (Boston, The Complete Works , 5:484).

Boston further described our dying day as the day we enter a better world, with higher perfection, greater purity, deeper rest, better company, higher perfection, and better employment than the world we entered on the day we were born (Ibid., 5:486ff).

Death is our entrance into glory — what Charles Spurgeon described as the day believers “reach their port, all danger over, and come to their desired haven” (Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Believer’s Deathday Better than His Birthday,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit , Vol. 27 (1882; repr. London: Banner of Truth, 1971), p. 149).

In another place Spurgeon says: “Death is the end of dying.  On the day of the believer’s death dying is for ever done with.  The saints who are with God shall never die any more.  Life is wrestling, struggling; but death is the end of conflict: it is rest-victory.” 

We rejoice over Christ’s birth, but we rejoice even more over His death, and ultimately His resurrection.

We look beyond Bethlehem to Calvary, where the Savior in the manger died upon the cross.  It is not the birth of Jesus that saves us, although of course he had to be born before he could die.  Rather it is the death of Jesus that delivers — the shedding of his blood for the atonement of our sins.  It is only because the day of his death was so good — Good Friday, we usually call it — that we can have any hope of life after our own death.

The house of mourning is the best place to take these truths to heart.

The “heart,” mentioned in all three verses, is where we make moral decisions (cf. Prov. 4:23). Thoughtful rather than thoughtless living is wise (cf. Ps. 90:12).

Why choose sorrow over joy?  That is certainly counter-intuitive.  In fact, it sounds foolish.

How do sad faces bring glad hearts?

Again, I quote from Matt McCullough’s online article ”Why Funerals are Better Than Feasts,” where he sees at least two ways, one from within the perspective of Ecclesiastes, and another for which Ecclesiastes prepares us.

First, it puts God’s good gifts in their proper place.

Ecclesiastes helps us enjoy the good gifts of life by preventing us from worshiping or trusting them.  Under the sun no good gift is ours to keep.  That’s what we learn in the house of mourning, and it’s a hard lesson.

If we fail to learn this lesson—if we aim for security in reputations or fortunes or careers or whatever else we build for ourselves—we’ll eventually deal with crippling futility and frustration.  As permanent safeguards even the best gifts of life are vanity.  To trust ourselves to them is to ruin any chance of truly enjoying them.

But if we accept the grief that comes with loss that comes with time, these gifts of God, like manna in the wilderness, don’t have to spoil.  They can instead be what they are, what he intends them to be—not his competition, but tokens of his love for his children.

Consider encouraging passages like Ecclesiastes 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (cf. 3:12–13; 5:18).  These are the Preacher’s sermon applications.  The book’s brutal honesty about what time does to everything aims at joy in God’s good gifts. Mourning helps us accept their limitations.  Accepting their limitations helps us see them for what they are, not for what they aren’t.

Second, the sorrow that Ecclesiastes calls wisdom helps us set our hearts on the only source of true, resilient joy.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

If Christ isn’t raised, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, faith in him is as vain and futile as everything else.  May as well eat, drink and be merry (1 Cor. 15:32).  Let’s everybody meet up at the house of feasting after all!  But in fact Christ has been raised, the firstfruits who will bring many sons to glory, beyond the sun, where God himself will be our light (Rev. 21:23).

The house of mourning, where we tell the truth about the fragility of all that we love in this world, helps to lift our eyes and our hopes beyond this world, to the only true comfort in life and in death.

And in this way, ironically, the house of mourning stands in solidarity with another house of feasting.  We skip some parties now not because feasting is wrong, but because not all feasts are equal.  We’re saving our appetites for the banquet Christ has prepared for us, our endless feast in the house of Zion (Isa. 25:6).

Isn’t that great?  I love that last paragraph!

Now, Jesus himself was known to feast on occasion, and the banqueting table is one of the Bible’s most positive images of divine blessing (e.g., Song 2:4; Luke 15:22–23).  Yet even the happiest celebrations can tend to be superficial.

As Derek Kidner wisely observes, “At a birth (and on all festive and gay occasions) the general mood is excited and expansive.  It is no time for dwelling on life’s brevity or on human limitations: we let our fancies and our hopes run high.  At the house of mourning, on the other hand, the mood is thoughtful and the facts are plain.  If we shrug them off, it is our fault: we shall have no better chance of facing them.”

Going to a good funeral helps us think wisely about death.  It causes us to mourn, which enables us to receive the comfort that Jesus promised to those who mourn (Matthew 5:4).  Going to a funeral encourages sober contemplation of our own mortality, and this in turn teaches us how to live. 

Going to a funeral is better in this sense: it teaches us to be wise in the way we live and prepare to die.  May you and I learn how to live and die for God’s glory.

A good funeral also helps us prepare to die. Many people are not prepared to die at all, to their own folly. In his novel The Second Coming , Walker Percy writes:

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps . . . works, grows old, gets sick, and dies . . . takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs . . . for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all (Walker Percy, quoted in Marvin Olasky, “Wanting both: Looking for love in the right places,” World (December 22, 2004), p. 96).

The believer in Christ, by contrast, is ready to die.  One of the solemn duties of every believer is to die well, and this takes a lifetime of preparation:

Hanging on the edge of a precipice, engulfed by terror, is not the time or place to learn about emergency rock-climbing procedures; you have to learn about them before you start the expedition. Likewise, we have to start learning about death now, while we are still healthy . . . before we are blinded by denial and fighting valiantly for hope (Virginia Morris, Talking About Death Won’t Kill You , quoted in Olasky, “Whistling past the graveyard,” pp. 55–56).

One of the best ways to learn about death, and how to live our lives, is by helping people bury their dead, and reminding ourselves how to live and die for God’s glory.

Desperately Seeking Satisfaction, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 6:7-12)

Last week we introduced a man who had “wealth, possessions, and honor,” who “a hundred children” and lived “a thousand years twice over,” and who could not enjoy it.  Unlike the man in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, God did not give this man “the power to enjoy them” (v. 1), rather someone else did, and therefore this man believes it would have been better not to have been born.

Clearly, like us all, he is seeking contentment and joy, satisfaction and fulfillment, but was not finding it.

Again, listen to the sad litany in Ecclesiastes 6:

Listen to the sad words contained in Ecclesiastes 6:

1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good–do not all go to the one place? 7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind. 10 Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?  For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?

Last week we noticed that unless God grants the gift of enjoyment (5:18-20), that man can enjoy great riches and still feel disappointed with life, considering it “a grievous evil” and “vanity” (6:2).  Today we will look at the reality that again, unless God grants the gift of enjoyment, all our labors will not satisfy either.

Solomon has addressed the situation of the rich man (6:1-6) and now he discusses the situation of the poor man (6:7-9).  Both must labor to stay alive.  But whereas the rich man can use his money to provide for his needs, the poor man has to use his skills if he and his family are going to survive.

But surviving is not thriving.  That is what Solomon says in vv. 7-9.  Verse 7 says that a man toils so that he can eat, but eating adds no years to his life.  Again, Solomon is not speaking medically here—it is important for us to eat to maintain our health.  Solomon is speaking philosophically of the reality that all our labors and even our eating does not extend our lives.

The trouble is, we always have an appetite.  And it is not wrong to labor or to eat.  Solomon is dealing here with our desires, something we will always struggle with.

In verse 7 the Preacher tells us what happens when we feed that appetite: we get hungry all over again; the same cravings return day after day.  It’s cyclical.  We eat food to give us strength to work to earn our daily bread, which we eat to give us strength to work again tomorrow, and so it goes, day after day.

So Philip Ryken says…

We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.  Desire is always stronger than satisfaction.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 139) 

Nor does it matter how wise we are or how much money we have — we all have unfulfilled longings.  It is better to be wise than foolish, of course, but even wise people have desires that life does not fully satisfy.  Nor can noble poverty deliver us from desire.  The poor man described in verse 8 is wise enough to know the right way to live.   That’s a commendable virtue.  Yet even he cannot avoid all the disappointments that rich people have when they expect money to give them satisfaction and purpose in life.  Thus, the poor man is going to be as disappointed as anyone.  Neither wisdom nor poverty proves to be the advantage that Solomon is looking for.  Both rich and poor have distresses, diseases and ultimately die.

Maybe Solomon is sensing here what Moses had already said and what Jesus would later affirm: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).

We think we can find joy and satisfaction in the things this life has to offer—food and drink, music and entertainment, family and friends.  Yet desire is never satisfied.  Verse 9 says that desire isn’t satisfied to stay at home, it goes a wandering.

9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind. 

Our desires are always moving about, never really satisfied.  This is the wanderlust of the human heart.

Solomon is saying here, “It’s better to have little and really enjoy it than to dream about much and never attain it.”  It’s like the familiar proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Be satisfied with what God has given you, don’t keep grasping for what you may never attain.

A striking example of perpetual dissatisfaction comes from the excavations at the city of Pompeii.  When Vesuvius erupted and Pompeii was buried, many people perished, with their body shapes, postures, and in some instances their facial expressions preserved in volcanic ash.  One woman’s feet were pointed in the direction of the city gate, headed for safety.  Yet her face was turned back to look at something just beyond the reach of her outstretched hands.  She was grasping for a prize — a bag of beautiful pearls.  Whether suddenly she remembered that she had left the pearls behind or else saw that someone else had dropped them as she was running for her life, the woman was frozen in a pose of unattainable desire.

What a vivid picture for us—to realize that much of what we desire and reach for is just out of our grasp.  But that again is “life under the sun,” life without God.

And with this woman from Pompeii, it resulted in death.  It may for us as well.  We reach for food or drink to mask our pain, or sexual pleasures to erase our boredom, or maybe just spend hours playing computer games to titillate our senses.  But whatever it is, our wandering appetites are always reaching for something we hope will satisfy, but that satisfaction and joy lie just outside our grasp.

Be content with what you have–your work, your food, your family; do not count on what is beyond your reach.  What you see with your eyes you can deal with; what you crave with your soul you may not attain.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 154-55)

The truth is, only God can fully satisfy.  Only God, as we saw in the last chapter, can grant us the gift of enjoying life.  But that satisfaction comes through Him, not apart from Him.  When we leave God out, we leave joy out; we leave satisfaction and meaning out.

The Westminster Confession of Faith begins with the question:

“What is the chief end of man?

And the answer is:  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

John Piper has noted that a better way of conceiving of the meaning of this answer is “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.”  He is our greatest enjoyment; He is our greatest satisfaction, our greatest treasure.

But through Him, for His sake, we can also enjoy the things of this life.  Not apart from Him and not ahead of Him, but through Him and for His glory we can enjoy the good gifts of this life.

Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol, instead of turning to television and computer games, instead of turning to pornography when you are feeling empty and bored, or in pain and agony, turn to Jesus Christ.  Run to Him.

John Piper, in his book Future Grace, writes:

The human heart produces desires as fire produces heat.  As surely as the sparks fly upward, the heart pumps out desire after desire for a happier future.  The condition of the heart is appraised by the kinds of desires that hold sway.  Or, to put it another way, the state of the heart is shown by the things that satisfy its desires.  If it is satisfied with mean and ugly things, it is a mean and ugly heart.  If it is satisfied with God, it is a godly heart.  As Henry Skougal put it, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its desire.”  (John Piper, Future Grace, 277-78) 

If you desire God, you will be satisfied.

If not, if you leave God out, none of these good gifts will satisfy.  It will all be “vanity and striving after wind.”

By the way, verse 9 is the last of nine times the phrase “striving after wind” occurs (cf. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16).  It opened and now closes the section of the book dealing with the ultimate futility of human achievement (1:12—6:9).

All idolatry is not only treacherous but also futile.  Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy.  If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but under-nourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.   (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 122-23)

Solomon would have a son, Rehoboam, who would covet his father’s fame, wealth and power.  Covetousness is, in many respects, the gateway of all other sin.  Whoever allows covetousness free rein in his soul will tumble through all kinds of temptations into the snares of sin (Jas 1:13-15).  That’s why, Solomon implies, it is better to be content with what one has than to let his appetite wander to the possessions of others (cf. 1 Tm 6:6-10).  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, June 10, 2011) 

True satisfaction comes when we enjoy God and do His will.  This was expressed by Jesus when he said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go into fulltime ministry before your work will be fulfilling.  But are you doing it with the intent to glorify and enjoy God in your work?  Are you doing it dependent upon His wisdom and strength to accomplish the work?

Yes, when we include God in our lives, and walk according to His will, there can be riches and labor and enjoyment.  But we must accept His plan for our lives, receive His gifts gratefully, and enjoy each day as He enables.

Verses 10-12 represent a third group of people.  There is not only the rich who get little to no enjoyment out of their riches, and the poor who labor but are not satisfied, but there are also people who want answers to all of life’s questions, but aren’t satisfied with the answers.

In 6:10-12, Solomon returned to his theme of the immutability and inscrutability of divine providence (i.e., why God allows things to happen as they do; cf. 1:15, 19; 3:11, 14, 22).

10 Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?  For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?

These verses fall virtually at the midpoint of Ecclesiastes, but the Preacher is still saying some of the same things he said at the beginning of his book.  If he has said it once, he has said it a dozen times: there is nothing new under the sun.  The names have already been assigned; everything is labeled and categorized.  

“Named” (v. 10) refers to the practice of expressing the nature of something by giving it an appropriate name.  In the ancient world people recognized that the person who named someone or something was sovereign over it.  Thus God “called” what he had created day, heaven, man, etc.; and Adam named the woman, the animals, etc.  Solomon’s point in verse 10 is that God has sovereignly decreed the nature and essence of everything that exists.

Furthermore, the human condition is what it always has been ever since the fall of Adam and Eve: vanity and a striving after wind.  This lament reminded Martin Luther of an old German proverb: “As things have been, so they still are; and as things are, so they will be.” (“Notes on Ecclesiastes,” 15:101).

Even if we are unhappy with the way things are, there is no sense in disputing with “one stronger” than you.  This seems to be a reference to the Almighty God.  Some people have tried to argue with God, like Job, but they usually come to regret it.

After God answered him out of the whirlwind, Job had to confess, “I have uttered what I did not understand . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6).

It is foolish for us to argue with God over what is, what He has ordained.  More arguing will only result in greater futility (v. 11).

Man does not know what is best for him because he does not know what the future holds completely (v. 12; cf. 3:22b).  Solomon pointed out that we are ignorant of our place in God’s all-inclusive plan.  Even though we have more revelation of God’s plans and purposes than Solomon did, we still are very ignorant of these things.

It is pointless to argue with God about His plan.  We cannot talk Him out of it.

In the words of Derek Kidner, “Whatever brave words we may multiply about man, or against his Maker, verses 10 and 11 remind us that we shall not alter the way in which we and our world were made.”11 

In fact, the more we talk, the emptier our words will sound. To help keep us in our place, the Apostle Paul asked, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20).

Rather than ending this part of his book with an argument, therefore, the Preacher closes with a couple of rhetorical questions: “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?  For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12).

The first question is about our present existence.  What makes up the “good life” for man “the few days of his vain life?”  Solomon has been proving that most of the things we think make up the “good life” really don’t, not without God at least.

But Solomon will continue in the rest of the book to try to identify what that “good life” looks like.  I’ll tell you one thing that David adds that really gives me excitement for everyday life.  He says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

When I include God in my life, I become more aware that his goodness and mercy chase after me every single day of my life.  There hasn’t been a day that God hasn’t chased after me with goodness and mercy.  But if I leave God out, I won’t see it.  I won’t believe it either.

In the last question Solomon deals with the afterlife.

Secularists, materialists, humanists don’t believe in an afterlife.  They don’t believe that we still exist after death in any meaningful sense.

According to the British Humanist Association, “Life leads to nothing, and every pretense that it does not is a deceit” (quoted by John Blanchard in Where Do We Go from Here? (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2008), p. 10).

Some skeptics are more careful.  They may not believe in kingdom come, but they know they cannot deny the possibility.  Thus they die in uncertainty, like Rabelais who said, “I am off in search of a great Perhaps,” or Thomas Hobbes who famously described his death as the “last voyage, a great leap in the dark” (ibid., p. 9)

But those who believe in the Bible know differently.  Gradually, as the Bible unfolds, we learn of a real, even glorious future for those who know God through Jesus Christ.  It is a place called heaven, which John three times was instructed to write about because “these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 19, 21, 22).

If there is no Heaven, then there is no way to escape the vanity of our existence.  Nothing matters.  Our longings will never be satisfied. Our appetites will keep wandering forever. 

But there is a heaven, because there is a God.  And Jesus is preparing a place for us there!

Desperately Seeking Satisfaction, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 6:1-6)

Maybe you had this happen to you as a child.  It’s Christmas morning and under the tree are a variety of gifts, some of them for you.  You open your gifts.  You play with them for awhile.  But soon those gifts don’t satisfy.  We find ourselves wanting something else, or something more.

Jonathan Clements reached that conclusion in the pages of the Wall Street Journal . “We may have life and liberty,” he wrote. “But the pursuit of happiness isn’t going so well. . . . We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks — and, initially, such things boost our happiness.  But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we’re yearning for something else.”

Will we learn to be content?  Where is the joy?  Where is the satisfaction?

Listen to the sad words contained in Ecclesiastes 6:

1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good–do not all go to the one place? 7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind. 10 Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?  For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?

The word “vanity” (vv. 2, 4, 9, 11) or “vain” (v. 12) is used five times in this chapter.  Throughout the whole chapter is this sad refrain.  Twice he says it is “an evil” (vv. 1-2); twice he says he is “not satisfied” (vv. 3, 7).  It’s just a sad chapter.

So different from the end of chapter 5.

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good [not evil] and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

The key difference between chapter 6 and the end of chapter 5 is that God has given this person the ability to “find enjoyment” and God “keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”  It is God who does this.  The ability to enjoy life, to find satisfaction, comes from God.

We cannot produce it ourselves—not from the accumulation of things, not from the heaping up of accolades, not from the affections of others—but from God.  You leave God out of the picture, and you leave joy out of your life.  It’s as simple as that.

Ecclesiastes 6 gets us back to the grind—living life under the sun (v. 1)/without God in the picture.  Whereas God is mentioned four times in all three verses in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, and in a positive way, Ecclesiastes 6:2 says that God “gives wealth, possessions, and honor,” yet “God does not give him power to enjoy them.”  This is the only mention of God in Ecclesiastes 6.  Ecclesiastes 6 gives us a long list of life’s disappointments.

The Preacher’s first disappointment related to people’s possessions. Satisfaction, he saw, is not guaranteed:

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–2).

The man in these verses seemed to have it all.  Not only was he worth a fortune (he has “wealth, possessions”), but he was also famous (he has “honor”), which many people value even more highly than money.  Yet for some unspecified reason he was unable to enjoy what he had.

Martin Luther called these verses “a description of a rich man who lacks nothing for a good and happy life and yet does not have one.”

Of course, he means that he lacked nothing as far as earthly possessions or approval, but he lacked a good and happy life because it was not given to him by God.

Unlike the man described at the end of Ecclesiastes 5, the man in chapter 6 had the acquisition without the satisfaction.  In the end he lost everything, and thus he never had the chance to enjoy what he worked a lifetime to gain.

Perhaps he lost his property in wartime or through theft or threw it away in some risky investment (see Ecclesiastes 5:13–14).  Maybe he was too sick to make good use of his money or died before he reached retirement (see Ecclesiastes 2:18), as many people do.  But for some providential reason, someone who seemed to have everything that he could want never had the chance to enjoy it.

J. Vernon McGee tells the story…

“A friend told me that when he was in a hotel in Florida, he saw John D. Rockefeller, Sr., sitting and eating his meal.  He had just a few little crumbs, some health food, that had been set before him.  Over at a side table my friend saw one of the men who worked as a waiter in the hotel sitting with a big juicy steak in front of him.  The man who could afford the steak couldn’t eat one; the man who could not afford the steak had one to eat because he worked for the hotel.  It is better to have a good appetite than a big bank account!”

And what is particularly irksome, is that someone else, a “stranger,” gets to enjoy it.  Not him, not his kids, but a stranger.  He never gets to enjoy it while he had it.  All that he worked for goes to someone else.

Thus, he rightly calls this “vanity,” so empty.  It was a “grievous evil.”  This may mean an evil that causes grief.  It causes affliction and confusion.  Earlier in verse 1 he had said this “lies heavy on mankind.”  We cannot bear it; it is too heavy a load.

While this expression may refer to the severity of the situation, more likely it refers to its frequency.  It happens all the time: one person loses everything he has worked so hard to gain, and then someone else comes along to enjoy it.  As David wrote in one of his psalms, “man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” (Psalm 39:6).

Why is Solomon hammering away at the disappointment and frustration of life?  Even with money and fame, there is no enjoyment.  Why not?  Solomon is wanting us to become desperate enough that we will look up and seek our satisfaction in God.

He has not attached his name to it, but there is little doubt that Ecclesiastes 6 is a picture of Solomon as he sees himself.   This portrait is a disturbing one, not only because of how it depicts a God-fearing leader, but also because it drives us to seriously examine our own lives.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 59) 

The key to all this is in the phrase, “God does not him the power to enjoy them.”  This book pounds home that lesson over and over again.  Enjoyment does not come with increased possessions–it is a gift that God must give!  If He withholds it, no amount of effort can gain it.  That is a difficult lesson for some to learn.  We are constantly bombarded with alluring pictures in catalogs and in commercials that relentlessly advocate the opposite message.  Enjoyment, however, is a gift from God.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 81)  You cannot have enjoyment without God.

The emphasis of the book, remember, is that nothing lasts, nothing satisfies, nothing in this world is sufficient once and for all.  That truth, pursued to the nth degree by Solomon, is again driven home by this repeated litany of hunger/work/food, hunger/work/food.  True satisfaction may be found only in the world to come, in the presence of the Lord.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 64) 

It is his grace, not our gain, that leads us beyond the frustrations of earthly wealth to the riches that bring full satisfaction: the riches of fellowship with God now and forever.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 158) 

If satisfaction is not guaranteed, then maybe we would be better off dead. This is the dark possibility that the Preacher considers next:

If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.  For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered.  Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he.  Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good — do not all go to the one place? (Ecclesiastes 6:3–6)

Here is another one of the Preacher’s “better than” statements, in which he compares one thing to another.  In this case, he compares a man whose life is full of blessing to a child who never sees the light of day.  Given the vanity of life in this fallen world, Qoheleth bitterly concludes that the stillborn child gets the better end of the bargain.

Solomon uses two vital images from the life of the ancient Israelites: children and long life.  These are two of the fondest desires of the heart of every Israelite– a quiver full of children, and the days of many years.

In the ancient world, bearing children was one of the most important components of a good life.  Children not only provided the labor necessary to an agrarian lifestyle; they also ensured that one would be cared for in later years.  Thus, speaking of one who fathers a hundred children expresses the idea of superabundant blessing (cf. also Ps. 127:3–5).

In the OT era, long life and numerous children were considered some of the highest of all earthly blessings (e.g., Gen. 15:15Psalm 127), but a discontented heart will be unsatisfied even with these in excessive measure.

The Preacher also speaks of the blessing of living many years.  Life in the ancient world was tenuous.  Roughly half of all children died before the age of five, and youth and young adulthood were hazardous as well.  In a world with only the most rudimentary medical care, disease threatened everyone.  Beyond that, the complications of childbirth took the lives of many women.  Work in the fields and the dangers of war could lead to injuries for men, and even a very slight injury could lead to infection and death.  To survive all these hazards and live into old age was a rare blessing (cf. Gen. 15:15; 25:8Deut. 4:40; 6:2; etc.).

The man Solomon describes here is doubtless a hyperbole.  In order to express his extreme wealth he says he fathers “a hundred children” and lives “a thousand years twice over.”  Of course this is hyperbole, but it expresses exactly what Solomon wanted to communicate: even absurd wealth and an unheard-of long life cannot necessarily make one happy.

This man has these two basic, but vital blessings, in extreme measure, but “his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things.”  God has not given him the power to enjoy life’s good things.  It’s not that life isn’t filled with good things, but he is not given the ability to enjoy them.

Why?  Assumably because he has no relationship with God.

If anything good can come from this unfortunate situation, it is the recognition that our possessions can never bring us lasting joy.  The gifts that God gives us and the power to enjoy those gifts come separately.  This is why having more money can never guarantee that we will find any enjoyment.  Without God, we will still be discontent.  It is only when we keep him at the center of our existence that we experience real joy in the gifts that God may give.  The fear of the Lord is not just the beginning of knowledge; it is also the source of satisfaction.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 141) 

Notice that it is this man’s “soul” that was not satisfied.  His body could be satiated, but his soul was not satisfied.

It is not length of life that matters; however long you live, in the end you go the way of all flesh.  It is the quality of life that is important, and life is meaningless unless it brings joy, satisfaction and happiness.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 41) 

And what is meant by the words near the end of verse 3: “and he also has no burial”?

Certain passages of the OT (e.g., 1 Sam 31:11-13; 1 Kgs 14:10-11; Isa 14:19-20; Jer 16:4-5) illustrate the importance of burial to the ancient Semitic peoples, as the community of the living sent the deceased person to be at rest with the community of the dead.  A good life came to an end in a good death.  Here in Eccl 6:3, a miserable life comes to an end in a bad death.  (Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, 129)

In verse 3 Solomon seems to be describing a wealthy man who puts off his own enjoyment and saves up for his children.  They, however, are ungrateful and do not even honor their father with a proper burial, a matter always considered of importance in the Jewish community.  In life and even in death the man is frustrated.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 58-59)  

Michael Eaton succinctly says: ““To die unburied was the mark of a despised and unmourned end.  Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life” (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 106)  

It all goes to show that a person can “have the things men dream of — which in Old Testament terms meant children by the score, and years of life by the thousand — and still depart unnoticed, unlamented and unfulfilled” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 59).

Now, is life really as bleak as this for all people?  We know that the man of faith at the end of Ecclesiastes 5 has a different experience, and admittedly, many even of unbelievers seem to live life at least somewhat contentedly.  Few wish they had never been born.

Kidner points out:

“Once more he is inviting us to think, and in particular to think through the secularist’s position.  If this life is all, and offers to some people frustration rather than fulfilment, leaving them, nothing to pass on to those who depend on them; if, further, all alike are waiting their turn to be deleted [to die], then some indeed can envy the stillborn, whose turn comes first.  Job and Jeremiah, at times, would have fervently agreed. (Job 3; Jeremiah 20:14ff); and if we disagree with that mood of those two men, it is because we judge their lives by values that transcend death and outweigh a lifetime’s pains and pleasures—criteria that the secularist cannot logically use.

All of this is damaging to any rosy picture of the world; but TEV goes far beyond its brief in calling it ‘a serious injustice…done to man’ (6:1), and in making 6:2 say, ‘it just isn’t right’.  Qoheleth is very far from holding that man has rights which God ignores; it is rather than man has needs which God exposes.  Some of these, as we saw, are of a kind that the temporal world cannot begin to meet, since God has ‘put eternity into man’s heart’ (3:11); other, more limited, are of a kind that the world can satisfy a little and for a while; but none with any certainty or depth.  If this is a hardship and lies heavy upon men (v. 1), it is also a salutary thing.  The world itself is made to say to us in the only language we will mostly listen to, ‘This is no place to rest.’” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 60).

Or, “this world is not my home.”

Again, Ecclesiastes proves to be a pre-evangelistic book, pointing out the failings of the secular worldview, the materialist worldview that only believes that what is real to the sense is real and vital.  These worldviews leave God out, and thus they leave out joy.

For those who are feeling that disappointment and discontent with this world, they are primed to be pointed to Jesus Christ, the true joy of our souls.

Enjoy Life! (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)

Tom Bombadil is one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s most enigmatic characters.  Unfortunately, he does not appear in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings.  Here is a man not possessed by his possessions, as the person presented in Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 seems to be.

In the epic unfolding storyline, Tom Bombadil is a mysterious figure who is quick to laughter and who seems to live in a blessed state of joy. 

Early in the journey, Frodo and company wander into his lands, into a respite of joy in stark contrast to the darkness they would soon face.

“Who is Tom Bombadil?” a curious Frodo later asks Tom’s wife, Goldberry.

“He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

“Then all this strange land belongs to him?”

“No, indeed!”

No, indeed!  The woods, the water, and the hills that fill Tom Bombadil with delight are not his to possess — they are his to tend and to enjoy.  Which echoes Adam’s commission from God in Genesis 2.

To be sure, Tom is not an allegory against owning property, nor is he an allegory for passivism.  As Tolkien also makes clear, it will take warfare against Sauron to stop the encroaching evil in order to preserve the lifestyle that Tom and Goldberry enjoy.

As if we need the confirmation, Tolkien makes it clear in his letters that Tom is an intentional enigma.  Tom incarnates a contrast.  He represents a soul that has been freed from the greed of possession in order to delight in created beauty.  He has renounced control and therefore finds the means of power to be valueless, too.  As a result, Tom Bombadil can hold Frodo’s great ring of power with no danger to himself or anyone else.  The ring wields no power over Tom because Tom has no interest in possessing the power of the ring.

When the lust for possession is broken, when gratitude takes its place, and when one can simply delight in the glories of creation, then some of evil’s darkest schemes in the human heart are broken.

Today in our study of Ecclesiastes, we come to a conclusion which Solomon has drawn before.  Although this life has many sorrows and vanities, although it is confusing and complex, although it doesn’t often turn out the way we have planned, there is still something we can delight in and enjoy.

Listen to Solomon’s words here in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Solomon says something similar in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 3:12-13; 8:15 and 9:7-10.  This idea of eating and drinking and enjoying life is far different from the irresponsible and nihilistic, “”Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32).  Solomon is not giving in to defeat and saying, “Just make the most of life while you can.”  I think he is presenting to us a positive alternative to life consumed by making money, consumed by having it all—and that is, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that God gives us.

According to a Russian legend a peasant was to receive by a deed all the land he could encompass by running in one day.  When the day came, he ran and ran, got back to the starting point at the end of the day, and was tired.  The sun was almost down, but not quite.  So he took off in another direction to acquire some more land.  He got back just as the sun dropped below the horizon—and he dropped dead.

What a picture of the futility of modern living!  People gain something, but they can’t enjoy it.  They work for wealth, but then lose it.  They acquire education, but they are still miserable.  What then is the point of living?

The contented man, the satisfied man, is the one who can accept and enjoy the lot that God has given him.  Being the good God that He is, that lot will include giving us “wealth and possessions” and giving us the “power to enjoy them.”

Solomon begins by grabbing our attention with the word “behold.”  He is saying, “sit up and pay attention, here is something you don’t want to miss.”

Instead of experiencing the frustrations, disappointments and emptiness of toiling for money and wealth (which Solomon had just talked about in vv. 10-17), you can work your work, even enjoy it, expecting that God will give you both your income and joy in it.

Solomon has seen grievous things (vv. 13-17) and he has also seen something that is “good and fitting.”  The word for fitting is “yapheh,” which means “beautiful” or “fair”.  Obviously, there is a better way to live than what most people are living.

I think Solomon here is giving us a glimpse of what life “above the sun,” from a heavenly perspective looks like.  Although ultimate happiness and joy will not be found here on earth, true glimpses of joy can happen while engaging in the simple things of life.  Solomon sees that it is “good and fitting” to engage in the simple pleasures of life like eating and drinking, finding enjoyment in the life God gives us.

Paul told Timothy not to put one’s “hope in wealth, which is so uncertain,” but to put our “hope in God, who [notice] richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17, NIV).

God wants us to enjoy life!  While God Himself is our ultimate joy, out of His goodness He provides simple pleasures for us to enjoy from day to day.

Ecclesiastes encourages us to enjoy the pleasures of life with thankfulness to God, from whose hand they come.  Enjoy the pleasures, but don’t expect more from them than they can offer.  Never forget that pleasures proceed from a loving heavenly Father who wants you to find ultimate fulfillment and eternal meaning in him, not in the gifts he gives. 

Solomon believes that God is a God of joy, who wants to share that joy.

Earlier in this passage, when he was talking about the vanity of money, the Preacher hardly mentioned God at all.  But in verses 18–20 he mentions him repeatedly. Whatever enjoyment he finds is God-centered.  Without God, life is meaningless and miserable, especially if we are living for money.  But when we know the God of joy, then even work and possessions can be a blessing.

To understand this, we need to pay attention to the phrasing of verse 19.  Earlier the Preacher listed some of the many reasons why accumulating money is vanity (vv. 10-17).  Yet here he tells us explicitly that if we are wealthy, we should enjoy it.  That almost sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

But notice where the power of enjoyment comes from: it comes from God, not having things.  Both having things and enjoying things are gifts from God.

This profound insight helps us have a balanced view of our earthly possessions.  The world that God created is full of many rich gifts, but the power to enjoy them does not lie in the gifts themselves.

This is why it is always useless to worship the gifts instead of the Giver.  The ability to enjoy wealth or family or friendship or food or work or sex or any other good gift comes only from God.  Satisfaction is sold separately.  It comes from God.  Thus, we must have a relationship with him to enjoy His gifts to the full.

So the God-centered verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 5 call us back to a joy that we can only find in God.  The person who finds the greatest enjoyment in life is the one who knows God and has a relationship with him through Jesus Christ.

How do you see life?

Solomon presents life here as an “allotment.”  Twice, he uses this word in vv. 18 and 19.

The “lot” that God has given us, is enjoyed by trusting God with it.  We don’t have to work for it.  He gives it–because He is good and gracious.

David expresses his contentment similar phraseology when he says in Psalm 16:5-6

5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. 

David recognizes that life had been allotted and plotted for him.  And it gave him security and delight.  Even though there were boundaries to his inheritance, he thought it was beautiful.  Of course, this satisfaction with life as God has determined it, is felt because we first make the Lord our chosen portion, we value Him above all things in this life.

Second, Solomon pictures life as a “gift.” “This is the gift of God” at the end of verse 19, referring to the allotted life of both work and the enjoyment of God’s gifts, is very similar to Ephesians 2:8

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this [salvation by grace through faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 

Verse 9 goes on to tell us why this is important…

9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 

It is important for us to remember that not only our salvation, but our whole lives, is a gift from God. 

Moses warned Israel that when they got into the land and cultivated it, they might begin to believe that it was through their own efforts, rather than through God’s grace, that they were able to enjoy life.  In Deuteronomy 8:11-18 Moses warned:

11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 

David Guzik notes:

In times of abundance, it is easy to forget the Lord, or at least to no longer seek Him with the urgency we once had.  We often think too highly of our own hard work and brilliance.  Yet we must see that God gives us the body, the brain, and the talent.  It is all of God.

Not only does remembering that everything is a gift from God prevent boasting, but it prevents worry and anxiety as well.

This worry and anxiety, the heaviness of life, seems to be the point of verse 20:

20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

God gives us wealth and the ability to enjoy it so that we will not boast that we did it and so that we will not be anxious about tomorrow.

Jesus expresses this relationship between anxiety and money in the Sermon on the Mount.  He tells us not to worry because we have a Father who is determined to take care of us.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 

So we are to remind ourselves that all of life is a gift from God.  That keeps us from boasting and from anxiety.  We should ask God for our “daily bread,” be satisfied with that and joy will occupy our hearts.

God should be the primary joy and satisfaction of our hearts.  If he is not, we will fall into idolatry.  But even so, I believe he does want us to enjoy the gifts He gives to us, the life He has allotted to us.

That is the subject of both Michael Wittmer’s Becoming Worldly Saints and Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth.  Both books provide a needed addition to the idea that God is to be our greatest joy.

Yes, we need to be alert to avoiding idolatry, but we also need to learn to enjoy the gifts that God has given us in life.

Michael Wittmer acknowledges this need for balance when he says…

There are two ways to ruin our relationship with the Giver of all things.  The first is to ignore him and focus entirely on his gifts.  This temptation to idolatry is ever present, and we must remain vigilant against it.  The second way is to ignore the gift and focus entirely on the Giver.

What would we make of an insufferably pious child who opened every Christmas present only to toss it aside and say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, but all I really want is you!”  Wouldn’t the parents throw up their hands and say, “I’m glad you love us best, but you know what, you’re impossible to shop for!”

If the first temptation ignores the God who gives, the second refuses to let him be the God who gives. (Becoming Worldly Saints, pp. 65-66).

He goes on to say that the latter sin may be an even more subtle form of idolatry, because we are acting as if we know better than God.

Theologian Doug Wilson explains, “If I turn every gift that God gives over in my hands suspiciously, looking for the idol trap, then I am not rejoicing before Him the way I ought to be.”

God has given us so many good gifts in life to enjoy.  Acknowledging and enjoying these gifts now just prepares us for the eternal joys that await us in heaven.

Joe Rigney says…

We can’t imagine what God has in store for us.  Our minds are not big enough yet.  Our hearts are not large enough yet.  Eye has not seen, ear has not heard.  And the only way to prepare for the coming glories is to press into what God has given us now.  If we’re to eventually be entrusted with the laughter of heaven, we must faithfully enjoy the music of God that we hear now (The Things of Earth, p. 156).

I want to encourage you to open your eyes and ears, and heart and mind, to the wonders of God’s gifts to you—through nature, through culture, through your family, through the simple joys of life.  Embrace them, thank God for them, and then share them with others.

Derek Kidner says, “…as the chapter ends we catch a glimpse of the man for whom life passes swiftly, not because it is short and meaningless, but because, by the grace of God, he finds it utterly absorbing.”

Wisdom about Money, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 5:10-17)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of Ecclesiastes.  Today we are in Ecclesiastes 5.

10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. 13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Solomon will spend much of his time in the next two chapters talking about money.  He had already experimented with everything life has to offer (2:1-8) and come up empty.  He found himself the richest, empty-hearted man in the world.  But he wants us to get this point loud and clear, so he hammers on it again.

The first thing Solomon says about money is that it ultimately does not satisfy.  Therefore, it is emptiness to accumulate it.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 

When that question was posed to a 20th century billionaire and social recluse Howard Hughes (one of the wealthiest people at the time), his answer has become the stuff of legend: “Just a little bit more.”

No one ever reaches that certain amount and says, “I make 6 figures a year and don’t want a cent more” or goes to his boss and says, “Please, no more raises.  I’m making all I’ll ever need.”

Many of us would say the same thing.  We look at what we’ve got, and we’re dissatisfied, but we imagine that if we had a little more, we would be happy.

Thus, Derek Kidner states:

“If anything is worse than the addiction money brings, it is the emptiness it leaves.  Man, with eternity in his heart, needs better nourishment than this.”

The problem, however, is not money itself, or even possessing money.  The problem lies in the twice repeated word “loves”—“he who loves money…he who loves wealth.”  Money will not reciprocate our love.  It doesn’t love us back.  It won’t stay with us, but will quickly leave us. Also, there is never quite enough to satisfy our desires.

John Piper says “the heart that loves money is a heart that pins its hopes, and pursues its pleasures, and puts its trust in what human resources can offer.”  Instead of trusting God, it puts its hope in what man can accomplish.

C. S. Lewis said, “One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God.  If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent upon God.”

Loving money is thinking that I have to hoard it, or have at least have enough at this moment, to meet my needs and make me happy.  It removes the need to trust God.

Many of us Americans have this love affair with money some call “affluenza.”  It is that pang of discontent when we realize that we cannot afford to buy something we really want.

Paul tells us also that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).  Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us saying, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:16).  Jesus pointed out that money steals our hearts away from God and says, “No one can serve two masters…” (Matt. 6:24).

Jesus is the only true satisfaction of our souls.  Unfortunately, we all too often really believe that having more money will satisfy our souls.  But every time we find that to be an illusion.

Paul talked about learning the secret of contentment.  We talked about it in our study of Philippians.  In Philippians 4, Paul writes:

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

A second problem with riches and wealth, Solomon says, is that it simply does not stay.  They are constantly a diminishing resource.  As soon as we make a little money, bills come piling in.

In verse 11 Solomon records:

When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 

Anyone who has money will accumulate friends, possessions and responsibilities, all of which will require more money.  In Solomon’s case, he is talking all the servants needed to run the palace.  In our case, it might be all the upkeep needed to keep all our toys running.

The phrase “they increase who eat them” refers in some way to people who consume our wealth.  It might be the oppressive government described in verses 8– 9, which takes away our money through higher taxes.  It might be our children or other dependents — the hungry mouths around our table.  Or it might be the people who come begging for us to give them something — the spongers, the freeloaders, and the hangers-on.  Anyone who has won the lottery suddenly finds out they have lots of friends and family members they never knew!

Proverbs 14:20 says, “the rich has many friends.”

There are always vultures.  A person will hesitate to make a contribution to a worthy cause, knowing that he will get letters from them every week for the rest of his life.  Even a child is brokenhearted to learn that the child next door doesn’t really like her, she just enjoys playing with her toys.

“Being valued for what you have and not for what you are makes life in a vain world only worse,” says James Bollhagen.

But no matter who we are, the more we have, the more other people try to get in on it.

No one knew this better than King Solomon. He was the richest man in the world, but given the many thousands of people whom he had to feed on a daily basis (see 1 Kings 4:22–28), he almost needed to be!

Solomon is saying that the problem with money is that it is here today, gone tomorrow.  We can’t depend upon it.  We especially cannot base our happiness on it.

The second part of verse 11 tells us that the eyes covet things, but when we get them, they don’t really satisfy.  Once we possess them, we become bored with them.

A third problem with money is that the reality of having money often robs us of sleep.

12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. 

This is a repetition of a similar statement back in 2:23…

23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation.  Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity. 

As a general rule, people who work hard all day, especially if they work with their hands, are ready for a good night’s sleep.  Whether they have had a decent supper or else are so poor that they go to bed hungry, they will be tired enough to go right to sleep.

The worker is told what to do all day, they do it and go home.  Positions of power may be lusted after, but they turn into sleepless nights of worry and vexation.

The idle rich do not enjoy this luxury but are up all night.  This is not because they are worrying about all their possessions, like the rich fool in the parable that Jesus told (Luke 12:13–21), but because a gluttonous diet of fatty foods gives them a tummy-ache and heart-burn.  Their insomnia is caused by indigestion.

John Chrysostom, the “silver tongued” preacher of the 5th century, put it this way:

…servants are able to sleep. For since throughout the whole day, they are running about everywhere, ministering to their masters, being knocked about and hard pressed, and having but little time to take breath, they receive a sufficient recompense for their toils and labors in the pleasure of sleeping. And thus it has happened through the goodness of God toward humanity, that these pleasures are not to be purchased with gold and silver but with labor, with hard toil, with necessity, and every kind of discipline. Not so the rich. On the contrary, while lying on their beds, they are frequently without sleep through the whole night; and though they devise many schemes, they do not obtain such pleasure. But the poor person, when released from his daily labors, having his limbs completely tired, falls almost before he can lie down into a slumber that is sound, and sweet, and genuine, enjoying this reward, which is not a small one, of his fair day’s toils. Since therefore the poor person sleeps, and drinks, and eats with more pleasure than the rich person, what further value is left to riches, now deprived of the one advantage they seemed to have over poverty?

Again, Solomon says, this is emptiness.

In verses 13-14 Solomon preaches to us about another problem with wealth…

13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 

Two problems are revealed here—the detriment of hoarding riches, and the detriment of losing riches on a bad venture.

The Preacher calls this “a grievous evil,” which literally means that it makes him sick even to think about it.  To explain why, he gives us a case study, the point of which, said Martin Luther, is to show that “God permits the very riches in which people trust to bring about the ruin of those who own them.”

Riches can hurt us when we hang onto them, and when we lose them.  Amassing riches is again a sign of lack of trust in God.  We build up our coffers so that we will not have to worry in the future.  This was the problem of the rich man in Luke 16.

16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

This man prepared for the future materially, when he should have been preparing for the future spiritually.  He was not rich towards God.  In fact, he seems to have had little relationship with God at all.  This is the problem with riches.  In the parable of the seed and sower we find that the Word of God can be choked out by ‘the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).  There is no trust of God.  When we focus on future provision, we do not trust God for either our present or our future provision.

Instead we are to pray to God each day for our “daily bread” and thank him that He provides it.

Thus, amassing possessions can be harmful to our souls.

Verse 14 is heartbreaking.  A son is crying out for bread, but the father can give him nothing.  Why?  Because he has gambled away his paycheck.

Proverbs 28:19-20 counsels us:

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.

Today people lose their money in places like the stock market or get-rich-quick shemes.  In those days their ships foundered at sea or their camel trains were attacked in the wilderness.  But whatever the reason, this man took a gamble and ended up destitute as a result.

“The riches were suddenly and catastrophically lost, whether in foolish gambling, in a misguided venture, or in a sudden reversal of circumstances.”  We cannot foresee every misfortune.

But the story assumes a basic principle.  Fathers, husbands, are responsible to take care of their families.  They are not to amass money for themselves, but they do need to take care of their families.

The story assumes what the Bible teaches in other places: parents should leave a legacy for their children (e.g., Proverbs 13:22).  In financial planning for the future, we should think not only of ourselves, but also about what we can give to our families, including our spiritual family in the church.  Fathers and mothers have a duty to save and sacrifice for their sons and daughters.  Yet this does not mean that getting and keeping more money should be our primary focus. 

This verse shows that whether we amass it or lose it all, in reality money can be a heartache.  While we need it, we need to actively trust God to provide.

Finally, the Preacher identifies another problem with money and possessions: we can’t take it with us.  When we die, we leave it all behind, every last penny.

Here is how the story of the man who lost his money continues: “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” (Ecclesiastes 5:15–16).

By the way, the New Testament does give us some “above the sun” encouragement.  While we cannot take any money with us, we can “send it on ahead” by laying up treasures in heaven.

The language of these verses is familiar to anyone who knows the story of Job.  When that poor man lost everything that he had, he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).  The Apostle Paul took the same truth and applied it to all of us: “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:7).

One day all our labors will be lost. This is the tragic reality that every one of us must face — the reality of our mortality.

Since we cannot take it with us when we die, it is important for us to learn the biblical principle that we can lay up treasures in heaven.

Solomon summarizes the many reasons not to live for money in verse 17: “Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.”  This verse gives us a pathetic picture of where greed will lead.  “If anything is worse than the addiction money brings,” writes Derek Kidner, “it is the emptiness it leaves.”

Don’t let your life end in anxiety, sickness and anger.  Put your trust in God and lay up treasures in heaven.