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

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

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

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

Then the refrain:

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

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

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

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

Solomon says it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God has already approved what you do (v. 7) means such enjoyment is God’s will for us.  This encouraging word does not contradict the fact that we are the stewards of all God entrusts to us.  However, this verse should help us realize that it is not sinful to take pleasure in what God has given us, even some luxuries.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Wiersbe says, “Among other things, this may be what Jesus had in mind when He told His disciples to become like little children (Matt. 18:1-6).  An unspoiled child delights in the simple activities of life, even the routine activities, while a pampered child must be entertained by a variety of expensive amusements.  It’s not by searching for special things that we find joy, but by making the everyday things special” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1137).

I love this quote by G. K. Chesterton:

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

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

Solomon knew nothing of cohabitation or trial marriages.  He saw a wife as a gift from God (Prov. 18:22; 19:14), and marriage as a loving commitment that lasts a lifetime.  It is not, ultimately, based on passion or chemistry, but commitment.  M. Scott Peck calls commitment “the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 140).

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

It’s too bad Solomon didn’t live up to his own ideals.  He abandoned God’s pattern for marriage—remember he had 1000 women—and then allowed some of them to seduce him away from faithfulness to the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-8).  If he wrote Ecclesiastes later in life, as I believe he did, then verse 9 is his confession, “Now I know better!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Face of Death it is Hard to Understand Life (Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:6)

Solomon has been hard at work trying to figure out what life is all about, hoping to come up with some simple, unambiguous answer, something to print and hang on the bedroom wall or put up on Pinterest.  But the more he looked into things, the more he struggled to make sense of his world.

Looking for the meaning of life was like chasing one’s tail—it didn’t get Solomon anywhere.  This is a book that shows us that we will struggle with the problems of life, but as we struggle we need to learn to trust God.  Although we cannot perceive all the answers or solve all the problems, we trust that God can.  The subsections that follow begin “no one knows” or the equivalent (9:1, 12; 11:2; cf. 9:5; 10:14, 15; 11:5 twice, 6).

So Derek Kidner comments:

“Before the positive emphasis of the final three chapters can emerge, we have to make sure that we shall be building on nothing short of hard reality.  In case we should be cherishing some comforting illusions, chapter 9 confronts us with the little that we know, then with the vast extent of what we cannot handle: in particular, with death, the ups and downs of fortune, and the erratic favours of the crowd.”

And this is how the Christian life works: it is not just about what we get at the end, but also about what we become along the way. Discipleship is a journey, and not merely a destination.

And even though there is mystery in life, and especially in death, this doesn’t diminish our ability to experience joy (8:15-9:9) or to continue working with all our might (9:10-11:6). 

The Bible never condemns our attempts at understanding life.  Rather, the pursuit of knowledge is everywhere encouraged in Scripture.  We must never adopt the attitude of anti-intellectualism that characterizes some segments of Christianity.

The mind does matter.  We are to reason and think about what God is doing and what life gives us.  But we must always remember, as the argument makes clear here, that no matter how much we try to understand life, mysteries will still remain.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 128)

No matter how hard we try or how long we labor, we cannot figure out the infinite workings of God.  With His help, we can understand His activity in part, but a full grasp of it is beyond our ability.  This point leads to the second matter we must realize–namely, that God’s mysteries go beyond human intellect and wisdom.  We cannot discover them on our own.  If He wants us to know them at all, then He must reveal them to us.  Of course, the mysteries we cannot resolve frequently cause us to struggle in our faith.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 82-83)

Peter Kreeft, in Three Philosophies of Life reminds us that although the whole Bible is divine revelation, the book of Ecclesiastes has no speech directly from God, no direct revelation.  The book is not a dialogue, but a monologue.  It represents the best of man’s wisdom without the benefit of divine revelation.  He says, “In this book God reveals to us exactly what life is when God does not reveal to us what life is (Three Philosophies of Life, p. 23).

Here is the way Solomon puts it:

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out.  Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God.  Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.  As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.  Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

As we’ve seen over and over again, this is an amazing book before us.  Solomon gives us every reason under the sun to be gloomy.  He tells us that death always wins, and life always cheats.  He tells us that the best effort we can put forth guarantees exactly nothing.  Then, as always, he tells us to be joyful!   (David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 240)

In vv. 16-17 Solomon acknowledges that all his seeking after wisdom and to know the works of God, despite sleepless days and nights of searching, were fruitless.  His conclusion is that “man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.”  Here “under the sun” simply means on earth.

“The very busyness of life worries us into asking where it is taking us, and what it means, if it does mean anything. We hardly need Qoheleth to point out that this is the very question that defeats us.” (Kidner)

His conclusion is that we must be content not to know everything.  Neither hard work (toil), persistent endeavor (seeking), skill or experience (wisdom) will unravel the mystery.  Wise men may make excessive claims; they too will be baffled.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 124)

From everything that we have read so far (e.g., Ecclesiastes 1:13), we know that the Preacher is telling us the honest truth about his spiritual quest.  He has been trying to learn as much about life as he can.  Both by personal experience and by careful observation, he has tried to discover the truth about things as they actually are.

His conclusion so far is that it is impossible to know for certain what God is up to in the world.  Restless days and sleepless nights might not only speak to his incessant pursuit of this knowledge, but the reality of his anxieties in not coming to a satisfying conclusion.

No matter how wise we are, and no matter how much we “toil in seeking” (Ecclesiastes 8:17), we fail to comprehend his holy ways.

You know, there is a lot of information out there in the world.  As of 2006, researchers estimated that the world generated almost 200 billion gigabytes of digital information every year (Brian Bergstein, “Overload,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (March 8, 2007), C1).  Yet that does not begin to give us a clue to the mysterious workings of God’s sovereign plan.

But Solomon does not turn into a cynic, believing that life is only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth , Act 5, scene 5).  He does believe that what happens in the world is “the work of God” (Eccl. 8:17).

The wise choice is to humbly submit to God’s mysterious will and to trust Him.  We should lift our hearts and voices in praise of God, like Paul did when he arrived at the great mysteries of the mind of God with regard to Israel: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ” (Romans 11:33–34).

Beginning in Ecclesiastes 9 Solomon once again contemplates death.  Why?  Because remembering that we die is the great authenticator to insure that our worldview is based on reality, not illusion.

What we learn from Solomon’s “under the sun” perspective is that whether you are good or evil, a wise person or a fool, we all end up dead.  “Under the sun” it is always better to be living that dead.

The only thing that comforts us in the midst of death is this truth about God’s sovereignty expressed in verse 1: “But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God” (Eccl. 9:1).

The Bible uses the image of “the hand of God” to express God’s power, love, supervision, and control. Here the metaphor expresses his sovereign supervision of his people and their actions. God really does have “the whole world in his hands,” as the old gospel song says.  “Each one of us,” writes T. M. Moore, “without regard for what we’ve done in life, or whom we know, or what place we might occupy in our society — each one is in the hand of God, and he decides for each of us just what will be for us throughout our lives” (T. M. Moore, Ecclesiastes: Ancient Wisdom When All Else Fails: A New Translation and Interpretive Paraphrase (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), p. 65).

What a comfort and assurance to every believer!  Our lives are in his hands—hands of protection, love and security.  And we can surrender all our burdens and anxieties into His hands.

Of course, this was not the Bible’s full understanding of this issue, for Solomon was writing before the cross.  However, he realized that God was sovereign over the life of every believer.  He still struggled to understand what God was doing in the world.

His uncertainty comes out very clearly in the second half of Ecclesiastes 9:1: “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.”

The meaning of this verse is debatable.  The Preacher may be talking about love and hate as human emotions.  That is certainly what he means in verse 6, where he talks about “their love and their hate.”  So perhaps in verse 1 he is saying that human beings have trouble discerning the difference between love and hate.

Yet it is hard to see how this idea fits very well into the flow of his argument.  It seems more likely, therefore, to see love and hate as attributes of God.  When the Bible applies these terms to God, “love” refers to his acceptance, and “hate” refers to his rejection.  For example, when the Lord says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13), he means that Jacob is accepted by faith, but Esau is rejected in his unbelief.

And that leaves Solomon in a dilemma.  How does one know whether God loves and accepts, or hates and rejects, us?  He knows that our fate is in God’s hands, but is unsure how we can know our fate.  Being in God’s hands can be a good thing, as is expressed in John 10 where Jesus says “no one can ever snatch us out of his hand,” yet Scripture also affirms that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  Therefore, it is not enough to know that we are in God’s hands.  We have to ask whether God’s hands are for us or against us?

The Preacher goes on to say that this is impossible to determine based on life’s circumstances.  We tend to think that the evidence of God’s blessing is a person’s health, wealth, success and popularity, but this is not necessarily so.  In Solomon’s experience God seems to treat everyone roughly the same, again making it hard to figure out whether he “loves” us or “hates” us.

In verse 2 Solomon says…

2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.  As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.

The “same event” mentioned at the beginning of verse 2 is death.  Both the righteous and the wicked, the good and the evil, the clean and the unclean, the sacrifice and the person who does not sacrifice—they all die.  Again, this is the way life (and death) appears in Solomon’s “under the sun” mentality.

Earlier the Preacher assured us that things would go well for the righteous, but not for the wicked (Ecclesiastes 8:12–13).  This will be true enough on the Day of Judgment. But in the meantime, the Preacher struggled to understand why the righteous were not blessed and the wicked were not cursed.

Back in Ecclesiastes 8:14 he talked about a reversal of fortune, in which good people get what bad people deserve and vice versa.  Here in Ecclesiastes 9:2–3 he makes a different point — not that there is a reversal of fortune, but that everyone suffers the same misfortune.

One reason it is so hard to tell whether God is for us or against us is because the same things happen to everyone.

There are two different categories of people, and in general it is good to be a part of the “good” category, but Solomon struggles with how unfair it seems that in life the righteous don’t always get what they deserve and then in death they all experience the same fate.  Again, Solomon is speaking from the “under the sun” viewpoint.  It is the same fate for all, and Solomon doesn’t like it.

Derek Kidner opines:

“To all appearances, God is just not interested.  The things that are supposed to matter most to Him turn out to make no difference – or none that anyone can see – to the way we are disposed of in the end.  Moral or immoral, religious or profane, we are all mown down alike.”

If there are heavy storms, the righteous get flooded out with the wicked.  If there is an earthquake, both of their houses fall down, and if there is a depression, they both go broke.  Thinking more optimistically, when times are good, the rising tide will lift all boats.  Therefore, we will never be able to separate the righteous from the wicked on the basis of what happens in the world.  Since God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), it is impossible to tell who has and who does not have God’s eternal favor.

This frustrated the Preacher no end. In fact, he begins verse 3 by saying that the equivalence of earthly outcomes is an evil thing.  Then he ends the verse by saying, once again, that human beings are desperately wicked: “Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3; cf. 7:29; 8:11).

Can you sense the frustration of Solomon here?  The Preacher ended chapter 8 by denying that anyone can understand the work that God does in the world.  For a moment he gave us some hope that our lives were in the hands of a sovereign God, but then he said that it was impossible for us to know whether God is for us or against us — the same fate awaits us all.

And, on top of that, the human heart is full of so much evil that it almost drives us to madness.

Boy, don’t we see that in our culture today?  People commit acts of lawless violence, pursue self-destructive addictions, engage in sexual immoralities.  Families fall apart, children are abused, marriages end.  We are living in a world of madness.

And, worst of all, we all end up dead.  “After that,” the Preacher says, “they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

In light of all this, Solomon’s “under the sun” conclusion is to live at all costs, to stay alive.  Verse 4 says…

4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 

Now, a lion is the “king of beasts” (Prov. 30:30), admired throughout the ancient world.  But Solomon concludes that it would be better to be a living dog than a dead lion.  Unlike dogs today, dogs in the ancient world were not “man’s best friend” or beloved pets.  They were wild scavengers (1 Kings 14:11) notorious for uncleanness (Prov. 26:11).  To call someone a dog was a social insult.  Thus, to more highly value being a dog rather than a lion was a major reversal of social and moral order.  The key factor is that the dog is still alive!

That is why Solomon says, “he who is joined with all the living has hope.”  As long as you are alive you have hope, after that, who knows?  Where there is life there is hope, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Better to face the perplexities and questions of life than to step into the nothingness of death.

Solomon goes on in vv. 5-6 to express that the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They are now forgotten and have “no more reward.”  Again, remember that this is the “under the sun” worldview that omits the revelation of the afterlife with its rewards.  And, of course, there is nothing good in the afterlife, and no reward, for those who die outside of Christ.

Because of all that we lose in death, it should make us grateful to be alive.

Fortunately we have more revelation from God that helps us to know that death is not an end, but a new beginning for those of us who know Jesus Christ.  We will step into the presence of Jesus Christ, enter into the joy of our master and experience rewards and eternal life.  This book pushes us to seek after God’s truth about what comes after this life.  Fortunately, He has revealed that to us.

Ultimate Justice (Ecclesiastes 8:10-15)

Every few years at Grace Bible Church we have a series called “You Asked for It,” which consists of questions people have about the Bible and theology.  One of the more common questions is “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Of course, that is also a common objection that unbelievers have against Christianity.  It is hard for us to understand, and the “answer” is often quite complex.

Solomon deals with that same issue in this last paragraph of Ecclesiastes 8.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.  I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

Once again, Solomon deals with a situation that he feels is vanity, emptiness.  It has to do with death and how it doesn’t seem to matter whether one is righteous or wicked.  Death comes to us all.

Solomon has been pondering about the power of earthly kings and how we might respond to them (8:2-4), and over God’s sovereignty over death (8:8).  Death sobers us.  It makes us face our own mortality.  It forces us to ask ultimate questions.  We are often distracted by the pace and problems of life, but standing next to a grave reminds us of something we try all too hard to forget: that death is coming for us all.

What was troubling Solomon, as it troubled many biblical writers and many people today, is that bad people seemed to have a good life.  If God were just, then He ought to judge the wicked and reward the righteous.  But when he looked around, he saw just the opposite.  The wicked received a good burial; the righteous were quickly forgotten.  That didn’t seem fair.

Solomon is saying that the wicked deeds of the wicked were forgotten in the eulogy.  Like today, only good words were spoken at their funeral.  Like the Living Bible says “I have seen wicked men buried and as their friends returned from the cemetery, having forgotten all the dead man’s evil deeds, these men were praised in the very city where they had committed their crimes!”

Solomon was like Asaph, who admitted that he was “envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3).  Asaph makes this complaint in Psalm 73, where he also writes, “They have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (vv. 4–5).  In other words, God’s enemies seem to get all the blessing. They make more money, have more power, and experience more pleasure and more popularity than the people who try to do what God says.

This is what Asaph saw, and the Preacher saw it too.

Here was his epitaph for the wicked: “They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things” (Ecclesiastes 8:10).

Although wicked people are prominent in the city, and sometimes even in the church, when they are dead they will be forgotten.

As far as this present life is concerned, however, the wicked often seem to get what they do not deserve.  Qoheleth writes about this injustice in Ecclesiastes 8:14: “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.  I said that this also is vanity.”

In other words, the wicked get rewarded (seemingly by God) while the righteous receive punishment, or bad things in life.  We see this happen in the world all the time.  Life seems grossly unfair.

Solomon calls this “vanity.”  The Reformation theologian Theodore Beza called it “repugnant to reason.”  It smacks of injustice and it grates on our sensitivities.

To make matters worse, the apparent inequity between the rewards of the righteous and the unrighteous makes some people more likely to do evil.  Notice what happens when the sins of the wicked go unpunished: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11; cf. 7:29).

Here we get another ugly glimpse into the total depravity of the human heart.  Because we are not punished right away for our sins, we are emboldened to keep sinning.  Because we don’t reap what we sow right away, we think we are getting away with it and so we keep right on sinning.  Justice is so painfully slow that some people think they can get away with murder.  Remember how Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, professional baseball players, kept using steroids, even though they had been banned, simply because no one was holding them accountable.  If there are never any consequences, why not go ahead and sin?

When people operate unrighteously, they are taking advantage of God’s patience.  God is patient to allow people time to repent, but He won’t be patient forever.  He is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6), but judgment will come.  The Scripture says, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Yet many people abuse the kindness and the patience of God by making them an excuse for their immorality.

Peter tells us that in the last days there will be scoffers who deny the coming of Christ as judge, arguing that things will continue as they were from the beginning of creation (2 Peter 3:4).

Cornell University’s William Provine makes this exact argument in his book on Darwinism. “When you die,” he says, “you’re not going to be surprised, because you’re going to be completely dead.  Now if I find myself aware after I’m dead, I’m going to be really surprised!  But at least I’m going to go to Hell, where I won’t have all of those grinning preachers from Sunday morning.”  Then Provine summarizes his own worldview, which has no room for God or for a final judgment:

There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind.  There is no life after death.  When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead.  That’s the end of me.  There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life. . . . Since we know that we are not going to live after we die, there is no reward for suffering in this world. You live and you die. (from a 1994 debate with Phillip Johnson at Stanford University, “Darwinism: Science of Naturalistic Philosophy?”)

Dr. Provine offers a long list of things that he “knows,” yet they are actually things that he believes , since none of them are capable of rational or scientific proof.  

But notice how similar his worldview is to the one we are warned about here in Ecclesiastes.  When people do not believe in God, they misunderstand why life matters and lose their foundation for righteous living, and therefore they turn their hearts toward evil.

To regain God’s perspective on good and evil, instead of this secular perspective, go to the graveyard.  Go visit the grave of someone evil.  The reality is, they die too.

Now, Alexander MacClaren offers a different perspective.  He thinks it is God’s design that justice doesn’t come upon sinners swiftly.  Even though the time lapse between sin and punishment may encourage some to sin, it can also be an opportunity for repentance.  He says…

If evil-doing was always followed by swift retribution, obedience would be only the obedience of fear, and God does not desire such obedience.  It would be impossible that testing could go on at all if at every instant the whole of the consequences of our actions were being realized.  Such a condition of things is unthinkable, and would be as confusing, in the moral sphere, as if harvest weather and spring weather were going on together.  Again, the great reason why sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily lies in God’s own heart, and His desire to win us to Himself by benefits.  (Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, 2 Kgs – Eccl, 369)

Likewise, the Puritan Charles Bridges reminds us…

Were the execution instantly to follow the sentence, how many glorious manifestations of grace would have been lost to the Church!  We might have known Paul as “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious;” but not as the “chief of sinners, who obtained mercy,” as a special display of “all long-suffering; and for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe.”  (1 Tm 1:13-16).  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 197)

The Preacher believed that although there were plenty of injustices in this life, he was convinced that God would make things right in the end: “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him.  But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12–13).

It seems that the Preacher is asking us to look beyond this life and see that ultimate justice occurs in the next life.  This is what Asaph discovered.  Troubled by what he saw—the good life of the wicked—he went to the sanctuary, spent time with God getting His perspective right and “then I perceived their end.”

Whereas before he had almost slipped because he believed that God was rewarding the wicked, now he sees it differently:

18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. 

God treats them like a bad dream and despises them.  They will be cast down to ruin, destroyed and swept away by terrors.

Asaph admits that he was thinking more like an animal than a human.  In other words, that his perspective was all earthly and temporal and man-centered.

21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. 

But God is faithful to reward Asaph, in this life and in the life to come.

23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 

Qoheleth also knows that ultimately things will not go well for the wicked.  One day that wicked person will die, be buried, and then forgotten.

T. M. Moore offers the following paraphrase of verse 10: “And then they die.  The funeral’s nice enough: we give the guy his due; his loved ones weep; his friends all say they’ll miss him; then we bury him away from sight, and everyone forgets him.”

Verses 12–13 tell us more.  Verse 12 tells us that the wicked want to prolong their days. Because they do not have the assurance of Heaven, they desperately cling to this life.  But verse 13 affirms that they will not experience even one more moment than God gives them.  The wicked cannot prevent or postpone their own death.  David said something similar: “I am gone like a shadow at evening” (Psalm 109:23).

The Preacher says further, and rather ominously, that “it will not be well with the wicked” (Ecclesiastes 8:13; cf. Isaiah 3:11).   He is likely thinking about what happens to him after he dies.  After death, the wicked faces judgment (Hebrews 9:27).  Their sins will be counted against them.  And because their names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life, they will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).

Therefore, we are not to envy the wicked, no matter how good their lives seems right now.  It will not go well for them on the day of judgment.  They will be “thrown into the outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).

Given the iniquities of life and the reality that we all die, Qoheleth is still more hopeful about those who live a God-fearing life.  “I know that it will be well with those who fear God,” he says, “because they fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12).

What is significant about this statement is that the Preacher usually tells us about things he “sees” and experiences, but this is something he “knows.”  I think this is something he knows through revelation.  His reply is “not an observation, but the answer of faith.”  He believes something that he cannot yet see—that one day all will be well for the person who fears God.

Again, the “fear of God” is not living in terror of God, as if at any moment He will strike us with lightning for a single misstep.  It is, however, a recognition that God is judge and we will one day give an account to Him.  Michael Eaton calls it “the awe and holy caution that arises from realization of the greatness of God” (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 122-123).

In this case, the realization of God’s greatness also comes with a realization of his nearness. Those who fear God are said to “fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12), meaning that they know they are in his presence.

Most of us walk through our lives without any recognition that God is right there with us, watching us, hearing us, knowing every thought.  We would live more carefully and cautiously if we did remember that God is always near, always aware of what we are doing, saying and thinking.  He is with us in every moment, with a desire to help us.

The proper fear of God is an important theme throughout Ecclesiastes, but especially at the end.  The Preacher has told us to fear God because he is sovereign over the times of life (Ecclesiastes 3:14) and also to fear God when we go into his house for worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1, 7).  Later he will tell us to fear God by keeping his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  Here he says that if we fear God, it will go well for us in days to come.

Remember the words of the thief on the cross next to Christ.  Two thieves were crucified that day, one on either side of Jesus.  One of them mocked our Lord, but the other thief rebuked him by saying, “Do you not fear God?” (Luke 23:40).  Then he demonstrated his own fear of God by asking the crucified Christ to be his Savior. “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  This is the way for anyone to begin living in the fear of God: Ask Jesus to save you!

Steve Brown reminds us:

There were two thieves on the cross.  One is there so that we might not presume.   The other is there so that you might not despair..  One is damned and the other is saved.

Anyone who asks for forgiveness will receive the same promise of eternal life that the thief received when he was dying on the cross next to Jesus.  Jesus will say to us what he said to that thief: “You will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  It is for this reason, and for this reason alone, that all “will be well” for the man, the woman, or the child who fears God.  It is only because Jesus died for our sins on the cross.

Qoheleth’s conclusion that he has returned to so often is: “And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15).

In spite of all the vanity “under the sun,” it is possible for us to find genuine joy in the ordinary things of daily life.  Indeed, that is one of the main points of this book.

Here is how Augustine summarized its message: “Solomon gives over the entire book of Ecclesiastes to suggesting, with such fullness as he judged adequate, the emptiness of this life, with the ultimate objective, to be sure, of making us yearn for another kind of life which is no unsubstantial shadow under the sun but substantial reality under the sun’s Creator.”

I don’t think Solomon is resigning himself to cynicism here.  He reminds us that life is a gift from God and that we should choose to rejoice in the good gifts that God has given us.  We don’t have to figure out all of the mysteries or resolve the inequities of life, we can simply trust God with it and enjoy the simple things of life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Our life is not only a great deal of trouble and hard work; it is also refreshment and joy in God’s goodness.  We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us.  There is a reason to celebrate. . . . God is calling us to rejoice, to celebrate in the midst of our working day” (Life Together, quoted in James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 47–48).

Responding to Authority (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9)

Philip Ryken shares this story from World War II which sets up what Solomon has to say about authority and how we interact with authority in Ecclesiastes 8.

Helmuth von Moltke was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi Germany; yet his Christian faith made him a resolute opponent of Adolf Hitler.  Although he believed it would be wrong for him to use violent force against the Nazis, von Moltke used his high position to rescue many prisoners from certain death.  Not surprisingly, eventually he was accused of treason, put on trial, and sentenced to die.

In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, Helmuth described the dramatic moment at his trial when the judge launched into a tirade against his faith in Christ. “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity,” he shouted: “we demand the whole man.”  Then the judge asked the accused to declare his ultimate loyalty: “From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler?  Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”

Von Moltke knew exactly where his loyalty lay.  He had put all his hope and trust in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, he stood before his earthly judge as a Christian and nothing else.  His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act wisely when he faced his final hour.  As a believer in Christ, von Moltke understood the difference between the proper exercise of authority and the abuse of power.  He also knew the wise course of action when he was under someone else’s control and in danger for his very life.

In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon instructs us in how to conduct ourselves before the king (8:1-4), then he discusses the interaction between divine authority and human response (8:5-8).  Then he reflects upon the abuse of authority in vv. 9-15 before his final reflection that deals with the human inability to know what God is up to (8:16-17).

These verses give us practical guidance for dealing with earthly government, whether good or evil, even in matters of life and death.

So let’s look today at Ecclesiastes 8:1-4.

1 Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed. 2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?”

In Solomon’s day, the king had far-reaching power over his subjects.  They literally had the power of life and death in their hands and no one could hold them accountable.  Therefore, it became imperative to avoid his wrath.  We must keep this background in view because it lies behind what Solomon says throughout chapter 8.

This chapter begins by lauding wisdom (v. 1), and it ends by showing that it has limitations (v. 17).  Once again, Solomon applauds wisdom.  It does make his face shine.  It can change the hardness of his face.

The wisdom of the gospel can make that difference—exchanging a stony heart for a heart of flesh—and it shows upon our faces when we experience that grace!  Like the Psalmist says, people who look to the Lord “are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (Psalm 34:5).

A striking example comes from a 2008 essay by a prominent atheist about a strange phenomenon he had observed in Africa.  The journalist Matthew Parris wrote a piece for The Times entitled “Why Africa Needs God.”  Although Parris made it clear that he does not believe in God at all, he admitted that Christianity made a tangible difference in the lives of people he knew in his boyhood home of Malawi and in other countries across Africa.  Not only did he admire the good work that Christians were doing to care for the poor and sick, but he also liked the way they looked.  “The Christians were different,” he wrote. “Their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them.  There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world. . . . Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes” (“As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” TimesOnline , December 27, 2008; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/arti-cle5400568. ece.

Biblical wisdom brings personal transformation.  As we behold the face of Jesus in Scripture, we are transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).

This opening verse summarizes what chapter 7 said about wisdom, while preparing us for what chapter 8 says about things that lie outside our control.  Wisdom still benefits us even if it does not answer all our questions or solve all our problems.

Chapter 7 ended by revealing how rare wisdom is—only one in a thousand men possess it.

Solomon seems to be describing an officer in the royal court, a man who had to carry out the orders of a despotic ruler.  Fortunately, this officer has wisdom.  It showed on his face.

The wise advisor, for all his gifts, is confronted by royal power and is totally dependent upon the royal pleasure. It is all very well to praise the wisdom of the wise (v 1), but one must attend to the risks they run at court (vv. 2–4).

Now, suppose the ruler asked this officer to do something that officer didn’t want to do, or something that was immoral to do.  What should this officer do?

We see this happened with Daniel.  He had to make a decision about eating the king’s cuisine and another time he kept on praying even after that was outlawed.

So what options does wisdom give us when faced with a command that goes against our desires, or more importantly, God’s will?

The first possible approach is disobedience.  And there is a case for civil disobedience in some situations.  But Solomon first begins by saying, “I say, keep the king’s command.”

Why?  After all, there are hints throughout the passage that the ruler in question may or may not exercise his authority in a godly way.  In fact, verse 9 indicates that earthly authority is often abused: “All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.” 

R. N. Whybray captures well the ambivalence in Qoheleth’s attitude toward political authority: “on the one hand he counsels obedience and submission to it on the grounds of prudence, while on the other he does not hide the fact that he regards it as brutal and tyrannical.”

How do we honor God by honoring the king?

Our first duty is obedience.  So the Preacher begins by telling us to “keep the king’s command” (Ecclesiastes 8:2).  A wise servant will do what the king tells him to do. He will say, “Your wish is my command.”

Reverent obedience to the king is part of the wisdom teaching (Prov. 24:21).  One is expected to respond to him with “honest lips” (Prov. 25:6) and “to claim no honor in his presence” (Prov. 25:6).  Royal displeasure is frequently mentioned as something you definitely want to guard against (Prov. 14:35; 16:14; 19:12; 20:21).  A wise person should pacify the king’s wrath (Prov. 16:14) rather than stir it up.

This, of course, is Paul’s contention in Romans 13.  “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Romans 13:1–2).

The first reason we should obey the king is that God made an oath to him.  Rightful kings in Israel ruled because of God’s promise, just like the promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7.  The people of God were obliged to obey their earthly king because he was anointed by Almighty God.  To obey the king, therefore, was to give honor to God.

A second reason to obey the king is that they possess ultimate control.  Verse 4 tells us that the “word of the king is supreme.”  You can’t argue with him or accuse him of wrongdoing.  There is no law that would find him guilty.

Third, when you go against the king, you will be punished (v. 5).

Some day that ruler will appear before the ultimate judge and they will be held accountable.  But that does not always happen in this life.

But suppose the officer simply cannot obey his master?  What other possibilities are available?

A second possibility that Solomon poses, then denies, is desertion.  This is what is meant by “be not hasty to go from his presence.”

Even leaving the palace would not guarantee one’s safety if the king became angry. 

It would not be as precarious to walk out on a company engaged in immoral practices today.  It may cost you financially, but you would keep your integrity.

A third option in the face of immoral or abusive leadership is defiance.  But Solomon says “Do not take you stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases.”  I believe what Solomon is saying here is don’t become involved in an overthrow of the king, even if he is doing evil.

Maybe he is telling us not to use evil to fight evil.

But is there ever a place to stand up for what is right, or to stand against what is wrong?  Is there ever a place for “civil disobedience”?

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

That is where vv. 5-6 lead us.  The fourth option, rather than disobedience, desertion or defiance, is discernment.

We need discernment, because the word of the king is law (v. 4).  The sage has little protection against the authority of his royal master.  Therefore, if we are unwise in the way we challenge the king’s authority—or worse—if our resistance is evil—then we may fall under his judgment (see Romans 13:4).

You just have to be careful before an all-powerful ruler.  According to Derek Kidner, therefore, there are times when “wisdom has to fold its wings and take the form of discretion, content to keep its possessor out of trouble.”

The discerning person knows there is “a proper time and the just way” (v. 5).  It takes discernment to know how to object to authority in the right time and the right way.  The impulsive person who overreacts and storms out of the room (v. 3) is probably only making the problem worse.

This is illustrated for us in the lives of several Old Testament believers.  Joseph didn’t impulsively reveal to his brothers who he was so that they would have time to deal with their guilt.  Once he heard them confess their sins, then he knew it was the right time to reveal himself to them.  His handling of this delicate matter was a masterpiece of wisdom (Genesis 43-45).

Nehemiah had a burden to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he was unsure if his king would allow him to go.  He waited and watched and prayed for the right moment.  When that time came, Nehemiah was able to share his heart’s desire with his king (Nehemiah 1).

We’ve already mentioned Daniel, a refugee in a foreign land, who was required to eat the king’s food.  But Daniel realized that some of these foods were unclean.  Rather than make a big fuss about it, he proposed a test.  This pleased the king (Daniel 1).

Michael Eaton also mentions Jonathan with Saul (1 Samuel 19:4-6), Nathan with David in 2 Samuel 12 and Esther before the king (Esther 7:2-4).  They used wisdom and discernment to guide their interactions with authority.

When the king is determined to pursue a policy that appears to be wrong or harmful, it is important to avoid responding in ways that reflect a lack of loyalty to the king.  It is tempting to react with anger or revulsion or to join in a rebellion against the ruler.  Qoheleth’s advice is to be patient, obey the king, and look for opportunities to turn the king away from the ill-conceived course.  In such situations it is essential to keep the power and authority of the king clearly in view—he has ultimate authority on the human level, is answerable to no other human being, and does whatever he chooses.  Wise people can often identify the right time and the right way to bring about significant changes for good.  The dangers inherent in such situations are obvious because of many factors that not even the most skilled sage can predict or control.

Verses 6 and 7 remind us that we cannot know or predict everything.

6 For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. 7 For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 

Once again we find ourselves up against the limits of earthly wisdom.  The wise person has a sense of God’s timing.  This is in keeping with what the Preacher said earlier, that there is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

If the Preacher is still thinking about kings and governments, he is saying that there is a time to obey the king and a time to leave his presence, or even to start a righteous rebellion.  We can apply the same principle to other situations that involve authority.  There is a time to submit and a time to stand against oppression.

The problem is that knowing that time, and the right way to go against authority, is hardly ever clear.  It can be quite complex.

The biggest uncertainty of all is the time of death.  No amount of wisdom can define the time that we die.  That is beyond our control.

The Preacher says, “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).  Under the sun death has no winners, there is no release from that battle.

Life and death are in God’s hands.  As David says in Psalm 139:16b, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”  God has scripted out our lives.  We have no control over the date of our birth or our death.

Someday soon we will take our very last breath, and when that day comes, there will be absolutely nothing we can do to extend it.  The Scripture says, “It is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27), but that appointment is on God’s agenda, not our own.  It also says that there is “a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), but that time is not on our timetable.  The last breath we take is the last breath we get, and there will be no way for us to take even one more breath after that.

The remainder of verse 8 provides a specific example of the uncertainty of life and death—being a soldier in wartime.  “There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).

Military service is regarded as noble.  John the Baptist, when calling for repentance, did not require the soldiers to quit their post, but to honor God in the way they completed their duty (Luke 3:14).

However, military service is dangerous.  It is not always possible to stay out of harm’s way.

Of all the things that a government commands people to do, this is the most demanding, namely, to defend their country.  It is also the duty that brings the most danger, and with that danger, the most uncertainty about the future.  A soldier in wartime deals with the real possibility of death at any moment.  He of all people knows that he does not have knowledge of the future or power over the day of death.  Nevertheless, a soldier must do what he is commanded to do.

The wise way to live in this situation is to submit ourselves to the sovereignty of God and entrust our lives to Jesus Christ.

In the last days of his life on earth, Helmuth von Moltke experienced the comfort of knowing Christ.  Although he was innocent of all charges, once he was convicted by the Nazis, von Moltke knew that he was a dead man.  Any day could be his last.  Nevertheless, in his last letter home he was filled with joy and confidence in the goodness of God.

We who know Jesus Christ as our Savior can have that same confidence, even as we approach the day of our death.

What Good are Wisdom and Righteousness? part 3 (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon has been seeking meaning, purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction in this life.  He has tried wisdom and pleasure, but came up empty.  Maybe because of the gift God had given him of an understanding heart, he still hasn’t given up on wisdom.  But it is a frustrating pursuit.  Listen to what he says at the end of Ecclesiastes 7:

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.

Doesn’t that sound like exasperation?  Wisdom, wisdom that satisfies and makes life better, seems just out of reach.  The Preacher has touted wisdom’s strength and value in v. 19, but now tells us how hard wisdom is to find.

Solomon seems to have dedicated his life to this pursuit.  Notice the active verbs he uses to describe his quest.  “All this I have tested by wisdom,” he says (Ecclesiastes 7:23).  Or again, “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:25).

His words actually apply to everything that he has investigated since the beginning of Ecclesiastes, when he said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13).

Yet at the end of all his questing he had to admit — very reluctantly — that he had failed to find the wisdom he had been seeking all his life.  “It was far from me,” he lamented.  “That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (Ecclesiastes 7:23–24).  

At this point it almost seems as if the whole book of Ecclesiastes may end in dismal defeat.  Solomon is looking for wisdom that he cannot find.  His quest has failed.  He is unable to explain the purpose of life, or to explain why everything matters.

Derek Kidner describes these verses as “the epitaph of every philosopher” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 71).  Indeed, many philosophers have come to this point in their search for meaning and have struggled to go any farther.  According to Horace, “Life’s short span forbids us to enter on far reaching hopes” (Horace for English Readers: Being a Translation of the Poems of Quintus Horatius Flaccus into English Prose , trans. E. C. Wickham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903), p. 30).  Or consider the words of Pascal, from his famous Pensées :

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Who put me here? Why now rather than then? (Thoughts, The Harvard Classics, Vol. 48, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), p. 78)

Sooner or later we all come to this point.  Unanswered questions and lingering doubts.

Why am I here?  What is my purpose in life?  Is there anything left after death?

Some give up at this point.  But the better course is to proceed with a newfound humility, with the disposition of realizing just how unfathomable God is, yet He has called us into a relationship and wants to be known.

As Tommy Nelson reminds us, “You don’t abandon your faith because you can’t figure it out.  You don’t punt because God didn’t behave.  You trust in what you know, not in how you feel” (Tommy Nelson, A Life well Lived, 126)

Knowing the limits of wisdom is part of wisdom.  The more we know, the more we should realize how little we know, and that whatever wisdom we gain comes as a gift from God.  As
Derek Kidner says…

“The honest admission of failure to find wisdom – of watching it in fact recede with every step one takes, discovering that none of our soundings ever gets to the bottom of things – this is, if not the beginning of wisdom, a good path to that beginning.”

The heart of the problem, of course, is sin.  Solomon has made several references to human sinfulness in 3:16-17; 4:1; 5:8; 7:7, 20.  Here in this section he provides insight into how this sorry condition came about.  He says in verse 29, “God made man upright, but they have sought our many schemes.”  It resonates with that passage which expresses total depravity in Genesis 6:5, “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.”

This theological assessment of human evil underscores the spread of sin in at least three ways.

First, it describes sin’s distributive spread among humans.  Just as people began to “multiply” on the face of the land (6:1a), so sin proportionately multiplied until it was “great.”

Second, the verse highlights the inward spread of sin.  Not merely the actions of humans but their mental conceptions and volitional affections are tainted and inclined towards evil.

Moreover, this inward character of sin is pervasive and prevailing in the words “every” and “only.”  Thus Moses affirms the doctrine of total depravity.

Thirdly, Genesis 6:5 underscores the durative spread of sin.  That is, as God surveys the human landscape, he does not only see intermittent discreet acts of sin but a perpetual habit (“continually”) toward sinful behavior.  Humankind is thoroughly given over to the sway of evil.

And as we notice in the next verse, it breaks God’s heart.

You might notice the play on words.  Solomon has been searching to find out “the scheme of things” (vv. 25, 27), while as a sinner we seek out “many schemes” of sin.

The reality is, as Solomon had painfully learned, that the connections between wisdom and righteousness, on the one hand, and folly and wickedness on the other, are especially close in this paragraph.  As in Proverbs 9, the dames wisdom and folly both call out.  Wisdom helps us escape the folly of sin.

In one way or another, the troubles of life always come back to the existence of sin in our lives.  And that sin affects our relationships as well.

By way of example, Qoheleth describes one kind of woman that it would be wise to avoid: “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:26).

Is Solomon referring to a literal woman, a seductress like Delilah?  Or is he referring metaphorically to the woman of folly in Proverbs 9?  Some believe that the Preacher was referring specifically to pagan philosophy.

I think he is speaking of a literal woman.  As Philip Ryken says…

Somewhere along the way he met a woman who tried to destroy him (cf. Proverbs 2:18–19; 5:4–5).  He is not saying that all women are like this, but some of them are, and a wise person will heed his warning to flee from their temptations.

We see this happening in Solomon’s life in 1 Kings 11:

1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 3 He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done. 

Throughout Proverbs 5-7 Solomon had warned about the seductive adulteress.  He acknowledges there and here in Ecclesiastes 7 that there is great danger, more bitter than death.  She will lead you into soul-destroying sin, your capacity for true intimacy will be destroyed, and your fellowship with God will be broken.

This verse, as well as Proverbs 5-7, tells us that there is a way of escape.  “He who pleases God escapes her.”  Like Joseph, he flees the grasp of the adulteress.  But the “sinner is taken by her.”  One who gives in to his sexual desires will be trapped.

When we are in the midst of temptation, we tend to stop thinking rationally.  We forget God’s promises and we ignore the consequences of sin.  This is why, to enable us to say “no” to temptation, we need to strengthen our inner resolve and our conscience through regular interaction with God’s Word in a way that we keep ourselves in the love of God.  The greater we realize that He loves us, the more we will love Him and be able to say no to lesser joys.  We sin because we don’t maintain our joy in Jesus.  We think we will find greater joy in our sin.  But there is no greater joy than Jesus Christ.

By telling us that there is a way of escape (see 1 Corinthians 10:13), the Preacher made it clear that he believed in the possibility of holiness.

But he was still disappointed by all the ungodliness around him. If he had met one sinful woman, he had met a thousand.  Listen to the futility of his quest to find someone living a wise and righteous life: “Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things — 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” (Ecclesiastes 7:27–28).

Jamieson sees in this allusion to “a thousand” a reference to Solomon’s three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines.  Obviously this was not a happy situation, even though we can be sure that he added more and more wives thinking that it would make him more happy.

Again, Solomon is looking diligently for wisdom, seeking it “repeatedly, but I have not found.”

He looked for it in his relationships and found it to be sorely lacking.  One man in a thousand had wisdom, but not a single woman.  His point is the absolute rarity of wisdom and righteousness.

This speaks more about Solomon’s choice of female companionship than it does about the relative wisdom of men and women.

“His fruitless search for a woman he could trust may tell us as much about him and his approach, as about any of his acquaintances.” (Derek Kidner)

“Such as he knew her to be in Oriental courts and homes, denied her proper position, degraded, uneducated, all natural affections crushed or underdeveloped, the plaything of her lord, to be flung aside at any moment.  It is not surprising that Koheleth’s impression of the female sex should be unfavorable.” (Deane)

“He found that a harem did not provide the appropriate companion for man.  How much better he would have been with one good wife, such as he speaks of in Ecclesiastes 9:9 and Proverbs 31!” (Wright)

Now, before we think that Solomon is being sexist, realize that if we take the whole of Scripture (and I think even what Solomon is saying in context) is that both men and women are foolish sinners.

Lest we think that the Preacher viewed men any more positively than women, we need to remember what he said in verse 20: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”  Even the one good man that he found in a thousand was still a sinner.

Solomon in vv. 27-28 is not universalizing this situation, but speaking of his own situation.  In fact, his foreign wives, according to 1 Kings 11, had led him into sin.  Their hearts were a bitter trap that led to his downfall.  Apparently he had not experienced a Proverbs 31 woman among his own wives.

Verses 20 and 29 do universalize the reality that every person has sinned.  Again, verse 20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”  Every person is a sinner.  And verse 29, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”

Here we have a broad indictment against humanity — what Charles Bridges called a “humbling testimony to the universal and total corruption of the whole race of man” (A Commentary on Ecclesiastes , p. 168).

In this verse Solomon is clearly not saying that men are proportionately more righteous than women.  Every person—male or female—is a sinner.

As to the original creation, Adam and Eve were created innocent.  They were not originally sinners.  “He was created neither sinful, nor neutral, but upright, a word used of the state of the heart which is disposed to faithfulness or obedience.” (Eaton)

But sin entered into the world through Eve and Adam.  Even though Eve ate first, God held Adam primarily responsible because he was the head of the household.  According to Paul, he sinned willingly.

By “his own free will,” wrote Charles Bridges, Adam “became the author of his own ruin” (Ibid. p. 179).

Not just his own ruin: Adam’s sin is the ruin of us all.  John Calvin thus compared Adam to a root that goes rotten and then ruins a whole tree.

God made us upright, thus able to make wise and righteous choices and please God.  Who is responsible for the universal failure to please God?  Not God.  We are.

To come from “the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said C. S. Lewis, “is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on the earth” (Prince Caspian (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 233).

Depravity is the one doctrine of the Christian faith that can be proven empirically.  Mark Twain may not have been much of a theologian, but as an astute observer of human nature he made this wry remark about the effect of Adam’s sin: “Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world” (The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922), p. 18). 

The Apostle Paul would agree: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

That is as far as Ecclesiastes will take us, but thank God the rest of the Bible tells us the remedy for our sin.

The first Adam is not the only Adam.  There is the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the only man who ever remained totally upright and never fell into sin.  By virtue of his perfect life and atoning death, he offers to forgive us for all our wicked schemes. 

J. Gresham Machen, a stalwart defender of the faith against the onslaught of liberalism in the early 20th century, traveled to North Dakota to fulfill a number of speaking engagements.  Already exhausted, the bitterly cold weather caused him to develop pneumonia.

On January 1, 1937, Machen, near death, dictated his final words in a telegram to colleague John Murray at Westminster: “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”

What did he mean?  The “active obedience” of Christ was the fact that He lived His life without sin.  His “passive obedience” was His submission to death on the cross.

Although it is true that “many died through one man’s trespass,” it is also true that those who “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” will live “through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15, 17). 

Even if we do not have the wisdom to solve all the deep mysteries of life or to figure out everything there is to know about our place in the universe, we should at least be wise enough to see the deadly sin in our own hearts and to ask Jesus to be our Savior.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 179)

Take Ten Looks at Christ

Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely.  Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in His beams. Feel His all-seeing. Eye settled on you in love, and repose in His almighty arms.

Cry after divine knowledge and lift up your voice for understanding. Seek her as silver, and search for her as hid treasure, according to the word in Proverbs 2:4. See that verse 10 be fulfilled in you. Let wisdom enter into your hearts, and knowledge be pleasant to thy soul; so, you will be delivered from the snares mentioned in the following verses.

Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him. Let the Holy Spirit fill every chamber of your heart; and so there will be no room for folly, or the world, or Satan, or the flesh.

I must now commend you all to God and the word of His grace. My dear people are just assembled for worship. Alas! I cannot preach to them tonight. I can only carry them and you on my heart to the throne of grace. Write me soon. Ever yours, etc.

Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 293.

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.