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.