Remain Teachable and Detached from Approval (Ecclesiastes 4:16-19)

If youth is wasted on the young — an observation widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) — then wisdom is wasted on the old.

During our lives we experience innumerable events, good and bad, listen to or witness the trials and achievements of family and friends, read hundreds (thousands) of books and newspapers, watch countless movies and TV shows.  If we pay attention, if we analyze the content of these many influences over the years, if we learn from them, then we gain wisdom. 

Solomon recognizes that just because we grow old doesn’t necessarily mean we grow wiser.  He says, in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16…

13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

After we have seen with Solomon the sights of the oppressed (Eccl. 4:1–3), the envious (vv. 4–6), and the isolated (vv. 7–12), finally we come to the king (vv. 13–16). In the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” the chorus goes:

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

As the song progresses, the Beatles sing of the old maid Eleanor Rigby and the forgotten Father McKenzie. Like the song “Eleanor Rigby,” the final verses of this section of Ecclesiastes picture an alone and forgotten person. Yet it is not the commoner who is in view, but a seemingly unforgettable king!

You might wonder if this portion of Ecclesiastes is somewhat autobiographical.  Solomon sure fits the portrait of one who was wise in youth and foolish in his latter years.  Although all the details do not fit, he surely followed some of this pattern.  The prison to throne portion fits the story of Joseph.

Solomon begins with another comparison (see vv. 3, 6, 9).  The point of this closing comparison is that it is better to lead with a teachable spirit than to be too proud to let anyone teach us anything at all.

In reality not every youth is wise, nor is every old person foolish.  The key issue is whether a person is willing to maintain an open, teachable attitude throughout life.  Sometimes the older we get the more stubborn we become.  Really, we should be life-long learners.

The first statement is a principle: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.”  This is followed by an example from life, although we do not know who fits this description.

Real worth is determined, not by external attainments, but by solid usefulness.

Solomon knew the value of wisdom.  It is what he asked God for.  God offered several coveted gifts but Solomon chose wisdom.  A good definition of biblical wisdom comes from Kenneth Boa:

Wisdom is skill in the art of living life with each component under the dominion of God… Wisdom includes the ability to use the best means at the best time to accomplish the best ends.  It is not merely a matter of information or knowledge, but of skillful and practical application of the truth to the ordinary facets of life.

When a person has wisdom, according to Proverbs, they will be successful in relationships, responsibilities and resources.

The story’s transitions are somewhat hard to follow, but apparently what happened was this: a young man unexpectedly rose to power, taking the place of the king who ruled before him. Though he had been born in poverty, he rose to the highest office in the land.

Some scholars think that verse 14 refers to the old king in his younger days, but more likely it refers to the younger and better man who took his place.

This new king ruled over a vast empire; there seemed to be no end to the people who followed him.  Yet even the new king could not rule forever.  Taken literally, verse 15 refers to a second youth, whom some scholars take to be the new king’s eventual successor.  Whether this is the right way to read the verse or not, verse 16 makes it clear that one day this king and every king will be forgotten.

Part of the lesson here is that fame is fleeting.  No matter how popular a ruler is, the day will come when someone else takes his place and all his glory fades away.  In the end, everyone turns out to be expendable.  Thus, looking to fame and power for satisfaction is another dead end game.

The old king may be past his prime, but the young upstart will not live forever either.  According to Derek Kidner, the new king “has reached a pinnacle of human glory, only to be stranded there. It is yet another of our human anticlimaxes and ultimately empty achievements” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 52).  We are thus reminded not to put too much stock in earthly position — either our own or anyone else’s.  Our fame will not last; our positions of authority or power will not last.

Thomas Constable says…

What is in view is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace (cf. Jeroboam, Solomon, and Rehoboam).  The point is that even though a man may rise from the bottom of society—this youth had been in prison—to the top, not everyone will accept or appreciate him.  Therefore, since it is impossible to achieve full acceptance, it is foolish to spend one’s life seeking it.  It is better to stay poor and wise.  We might respond by saying that some acceptance by other people is better than none, but this is an evaluation of short-term advantage.  Solomon was thinking and speaking of ultimate long-term significance.

The final scene (v. 16) describes a vast multitude of subjects acclaiming their loyalty to the second young king who stood before them as their newest ruler.  Yet the ringing cheers serve only to sober Koheleth, knowing as he does that the next generations (those who come afterward”) will take no more joy in this king than his generation took in his predecessor.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 126)

Don Meredith used to say about quarterbacks: “Today you’re in the penthouse.  Tomorrow you’re in the doghouse.”

Solomon is telling us that our hunger to be popular, to be approved by others, is a slippery slope.  Much better to live to please God.  Solomon is implying that it is much better to live simply, trust God, do good and don’t worry about what others think.

If you take an “above the sun” perspective, a much better way to live is to do some things that matter for eternity.  Serve Christ for as long as you can, then die well.  Enjoy God and His good gifts in life.

Even kings rarely impact the future in significant ways, and the acclaim they receive from their subjects is often short lived.  This illustrates Ecclesiastes 1:11’s claim that “there is no remembrance of former things” (ESV).

Solomon is reinforcing a theme from the beginning of the book.  Earthly life in all its aspects is temporary.  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (1:4).  The problems of one age will become the problems of the next.  The hopes spawned by the arrival of a new leader will be quickly dashed.  The next king, jealous to protect his own power, will re-write history in his favor.  But even that doesn’t matter, for the next generation will forget him.

Solomon will return to this theme again in chapter 9, but puts it in a different context:

14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city.  Yet no one remembered that poor man. 

Even the fame of good deeds will pass from memory.  Fame and accolades do not produce lasting advantage, so they are hebel.  The fame fades, and today’s popular figure becomes a forgotten artifact.

But there is another lesson here that we should be sure not to miss.  Of all the contrasts between the two kings — youth versus age, poverty versus wealth, wisdom versus folly — the most important is their attitude toward advice.  The old king “no longer knew how to take advice” (Ecclesiastes 4:13).

The “foolish king” loses his grip on the throne when he no longer heeds advice that would keep him out of trouble.  “Be admonished” recurs in 12:12, where the teacher warns against the making of books.  It is a favorite word in Ezekiel where it describes both divine warnings, and the kinds of alarms sounded by alert watchmen (chaps. 3, 33).  The senile king’s foolishness lulled him to sleep at the switch, and he was too foolish to know it.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 125)

It seems that the young man once filled with true wisdom and born from the school of hard knocks (v. 13) grows up to become an out-of-touch king who has forgotten his roots (v. 14).  And he is replaced by someone of lowly background who also forgets (v. 15).  In short, power always corrupts and becomes in-grown.

The wise person is open to instruction and correction, while the fool resists advice.  Since the old king apparently once behaved wisely, this suggests that a person’s commitment to wisdom must be persisted in and practiced throughout life.  This commitment, like many other things in the life of faith, requires a “long obedience in the same direction,” according to Eugene Peterson.  The arrogance of the king made him ineffective and likely contributed to his being replaced by the younger and wiser man.

As Matthew Henry says, “Folly and willfulness commonly go together, and those that most need admonition can worst bear it…”

In our case here, it might even be prison which provided wisdom.  Through trials we learn humility, trusting God and how much we need and depend upon others.  Trials help us to be more grateful, to see our own sinfulness, to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice more and to yearn for heaven more.  In all these ways we grow in wisdom.

In earlier days he had listened to his advisors, but now he kept his own counsel, and for this reason he had ceased to be of any real use to his people.  This tragedy has been repeated many times in the history of nations (and also, sadly, in the ministry of the church) as old men cling to positions of power, refusing to let go.

This story stands as a warning to older Christians.  We usually think that gray hair brings wisdom, and often it does.  But whether they are young or old, the wisest Christians are the ones who listen to counsel and, if necessary, accept correction.  

At the same time, this verse is an encouragement to younger Christians.  Even someone young and poor can do valuable work for the kingdom of God.  The way to do such work is not by telling other people what to do or seeking a more prominent position.  The way to do it is by having the wisdom to say, “I still have a lot to learn about life and ministry, and when the time is right, God will give me the right place to serve.”

The wise young man, according to Proverbs, starts with the fear of the Lord—a deep respect for God—believing that He exists, that He knows everything about us and will hold us accountable; but it continues by being willing to listen to the counsel of our parents (Proverbs 1:8).  All throughout Proverbs we observe how valuable a teachable spirit is.

Proverbs 9:9 says, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”

Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.”

Proverbs 13:10 says, “By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.”

And Proverbs 13:18 says, “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.”

Proverbs 15:31 says, “The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.”

Peter addresses the need for a teachable spirit in 1 Peter 5:5, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.  Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

The best way to gain this wisdom is by turning to Jesus Christ, the only King whose fame will last forever.  The life of the Reformer John Calvin illustrates this principle well.  When he described his conversion to faith in Christ, Calvin said that God subdued his mind and brought it to “a teachable frame” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms , Vol. 1, trans. Rev. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), p. xl).  The word “teachable” occurs with some regularity in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion .  A disciple is simply a teachable follower of Christ.

It may sound hokey, but the truth is that growth in wisdom is only possible when we are willing to adapt a teachable spirit.  That means having a passion to learn, possessing an intention to learn daily, and reflecting on what we’re learning to know how to apply it.

The end of Ecclesiastes 4 is really the story of Jesus and his humble, teachable spirit.  The Bible says that when he was a young boy, living in the home of Joseph and Mary, “Jesus increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).

He must have been willing to listen to his parents.  He certainly listened to his Heavenly Father because he followed his Father’s counsel all the way to the cross where he died for our sins.  Then, when the time was right, the Father raised Jesus up from the grave to be our King.  Thus, the man born in poverty and obscurity was exalted to the throne of everlasting glory.

Now there is no end to all the people that Jesus leads — people all through history, from all over the world.  If we are wise, we will follow his example and live by his grace.  We will ask God to give us a teachable heart, without which we will never be ready to lead or to be useful in any other way for the kingdom of God.

We learn to live in submission and trust in Jesus.  No matter who the human leader may be, we know that He is the only true leader and the only One who can make any real difference in our lives and in the world.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell concludes:

Here his climax is anticlimactic.  But we may leave on a cheerful note—not a deep, sad note that sings about our “ultimately empty achievements,” but a high and happy note that sings of our Savior King and his unforgettable acts of salvation.  Comfort, contentment, and community are the antidotes for oppression, envy, and isolation, and Christ is the answer to it all.

The Value of Friends (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

There is real value in friendships.  Solomon has just talked about the independent man who has no one in his life in Ecclesiastes 4:7-8.  That man lived alone and worked alone.  No matter what he gained, the man had no one with whom to share it. He was working too hard to make any friends or to start a family.  In light of how empty that kind of life is, Solomon highlights several benefits from having at least a few true friends. 

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 

Solomon continues with his comparisons.  In verse 6 he had noted, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”  Here he says, “Two are better than one” and then gives several reasons to support that valuation.

Derek Kidner says, ““Having looked at the poverty of the ‘loner’, whatever his outward success, we now reflect on something better; and better will be a key word here.”

You were not made to be alone.  You will not thrive when you are alone.  You are not as safe when you are alone. You are not as comfortable when you are alone.  You will not be as happy when you are alone.   But your sinful, selfish, fallen nature, competing to be better than everyone else, drives others away so that without grace you will ultimately end up all alone.

According to this simple comparison, it is better to share our life and work than to try to make it on our own or to live in such a way that we end up all alone.  The Preacher is not simply talking about marriage here, although of course every God-centered marriage is living proof of this principle.  But the Preacher is talking about all of our other relationships too. We were never designed to go it alone, but always to live in community with other people.  That is why a Christian won’t survive long if they do not connect themselves to a local church body.

All the “one anothers” cannot happen if we are not first of all with one another.  Christians miss out on so much by neglecting to assemble together, as we just experienced this past year.  We found out that virtual relationship really don’t cut it.  Yet many are still stuck in the virtual world of video games.

The necessity of community has been true since the beginning, when God created Adam and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Togetherness is better than loneliness.  Connection is better than competition.

Actually, community and relatedness goes back even further to the very Trinity itself.  God has always existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—enjoying one another’s fellowship, loving, honoring and celebrating one another—and engaged in the work of creation, inspiration, salvation and consummation.

Tim Chester, in his book Delighting in the Trinity, notes the importance of God being in community:

We were made in the image of the triune God.  We find our identity through relationships.  Just as there is both unity and plurality in God, so communal identity should not suppress individual identity and individual identity should not neglect communal identity.  Through our union with Christ by faith, Christians are being remade in the image of the triune God.  The church should be a community of unity without uniformity and diversity without division.

Therefore, being made in God’s image, it is “not good for man to alone.”

At the beginning of the film About A Boy, 3 the central character, Will Freeman, says:

In my opinion all men are islands. And what’s more now’s the time to be one.  This is an island age.  A hundred years ago for instance, you had to depend on other people.  No-one had TV or CDs or DVDs or videos or home espresso makers.  As a matter of fact they didn’t have anything cool.  Whereas now, you see, you can make yourself a little island paradise.  With the right supplies and, more importantly, the right attitude you can be sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists.  And I like to think that perhaps I’m that kind of island.  I like to think I’m pretty cool.  I like to think I’m Ibiza.

This is the creed of individualism.  As the film progress, however, he learns that it is not true.  And the film ends with him celebrating Christmas with an associated group of disparate people who form a community in which he finds belonging and identity. (https://timchester.files.wordpress.com/2006/12/the-trinity-and-humanity-tim-chester.pdf)

Subjectivism, the primary philosophy of the day, directs us to do what you feel like doing, right now, because you are the only person that matters.  This is reflected in the expressive individualism of the day in which each person defines who they are and want to be regardless of others.

Rather, we should find our identity in relationships, first to God and then to others.  When we diminish those relationships we dehumanize ourselves and others.

“We need others in order to know who we are and it is from others that we receive our value.  When we become a law unto to ourselves, when we boast of our self-sufficiency and give ourselves up to a gross and swollen individualism, when we become self-determining, making up our own ethic and stands, careless of what others think of us or expect from is, then it is when we begin to lose ourselves” (Peter Lewis, The Message of the Living God, p. 294).

So it is clear from this passage and the rest of Scripture that we need each other.  We need friendships in this life.  Friendships, good relationships, just make life better.

Kent Hughes, in his book, Disciplines of a Godly Man, writes this about the importance of friendships:

“Today friendship has fallen on hard times.  Few men have good friends, much less deep friendships.  Individualism, autonomy, privatization, and isolation are culturally cachet, but deep, devoted, vulnerable friendship is not.  This is a great tragedy for self, family, and the Church, because it is in relationships that we develop into what God wants us to be…  Friendships…are there to be made if we value them as we ought – and if we practice some simple disciplines of friendship” (Disciplines of a Godly Man, p. 64).

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves has a chapter on friendship.  This is the type of love, he says, that is built on sharing He says…

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).  The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like “What?  You too?  I thought I was the only one” (The Four Loves, p. 83).

Friendship is then developed by pursuing those common interests or quests together.  Lewis says something that seems counterintuitive, but it is true: “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else beside Friends…Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice” (The Four Loves, p. 85).

An exact rendering of the opening words of verse 8 reveals both the concise nature of the statement and the usage of two numbers: “There is one and there is not a second.”

Again, Solomon introduces a discussion of loneliness (the one alone) and companionship (the one with a second).  He qualifies what he means by “not a second”: “neither a son nor a brother.”  Even the Lone Ranger needs Tonto.  How could Frodo have survived without Sam, or the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring?  Although Frodo tried several times to “go it alone,” thankfully that never worked out.

Merry and Pippen are just as valuable as friends to Frodo and to the success of the Quest.   What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship.  Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realizes that his secret has been long known.  Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word.  We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and neither might nor even wisdom will do that.

It is clear that God advocates living in community over living solitary lives.

Of course, what neither I nor the Scriptures recommend is to be always with others, to need the presence of others so much that we cannot bear being alone.

We need times of solitude.  Times when we are alone with our thoughts or alone with our Lord.  In fact, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wisely said…

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.

He will only do harm to himself and to the community.  Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and given an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out.  If you refused to be alone you are rejecting God’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.  “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another.  Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (Luther).

But the reverse is also true:

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray.  You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.  If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther).

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 77 [italics and ellipses original].

Henri Nouwen reflects on the ministry of Jesus, particularly in Luke 6 where Jesus got alone and prayed all night, then chose his disciples and then went out to minister to others.  He says that this rhythm of solitude to community to ministry is the healthy way to live.

So he says…

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 

In the succeeding verses Solomon tells us that we need friends as helpers, comforters and defenders.

The wise person will pursue cooperative ventures rather than give in to jealous striving to be first (contrast vv. 8, 10, 11), a striving that isolates him from others.

The law of synergy tells us that when two or more work together, they accomplish even more than double the amount.

The concept of synergy stretches the mind to look at life from a completely different angle.  Synergy is defined as “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”  Synergy can practically be illustrated through two horses pulling weight.

A draft horse on its own can pull up to 8,000 pounds.  However when two draft horses work together they can move up to 24,000 pounds.  This is even more amplified when trained together as they can pull 32,000 pounds.

This is true of us human as well.  That’s why they say “Two heads are better than one.”  We become more creative when we work together.  We tend to work longer and harder and get more done together than separately.

Many people get married on the basis of the reality that two can live cheaper than one.  Thus during the Depression there was a popular song that said, “Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now’s the time to fall in love.”

One of the great joys of being involved in the ministry is doing ministry with others.  Working together as a team to accomplish something that brings glory to God is what life is all about.  It’s like Elton Trueblood said:

What is most rewarding is doing something that really matters with congenial colleagues who share with us the firm conviction that it needs to be done.

Two are also better than one because they can help one another in times of trouble.

“If they fall,” the Preacher says, “one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). 

We cannot always foresee every danger, but it never hurts to travel with a partner just in case of a breakdown or danger.  Just like we were taught the buddy system as kids to get us out of trouble, so we know that we cannot afford to be alone when we get in trouble.

The land of Israel was filled with rock and pits, just as life is strewn with obstacles and pitfalls.  We need each other to help guide us and pick us up when we fall.

A Coloradan named Aron Ralston was out hiking by himself in Blue John Canyon, a remote spot in Canyonlands National Park on April 26, 2003, when a huge boulder dislodged and fell, crushing his right hand.  He had no one to help him or call for help.  Eventually he broke his own arm and hiked out.

11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?

In a culture without heated homes, whole families would commonly sleep in a single room, especially in the winter months. (ESV Archaeology Study Bible)

12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken. 

Alone we are easily defeated; together we stand.  That’s the background of the proverb: “Together we stand, divided we fall.”  Even David was grateful for a friend who stepped in and helped him when he was weak (2 Sam. 21:15-17).  One is not good, two is better, three or more is best.

A threefold cord stands for the great value of “plurality” (more than one or even two) as opposed to being alone (vv. 7–11).  There is value in being a part of a larger group, of including others.

C. S. Lewis notes, “Lovers seek for privacy.  Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between then and the herd, whether they want to our not.  They would be glad to reduce it.  The first two would be glad to find a third” (The Four Loves, p. 83).

One obvious application of this is the reality that any friendship or marriage is greatly benefitted by their mutual relationship with God.  With God as a valued member in the threefold friendship, that relationship is not diminished, but strengthened.

Charles Spurgeon reinforces this truth by drawing on examples in nature:

Communion is strength; solitude is weakness.  Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow.  In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane.  The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.

The sequoia redwood trees have a unique root system that is a marvel, compared to their mammoth size.

Their roots are relatively shallow.  There is no tap root to anchor them deep into the earth.  The roots actually only go down 6-12 feet, and yet, these trees rarely fall over.  They withstand strong winds, earthquakes, fires, storms, and prolonged flooding.

How can something up to 500 tons, reaching over 350 feet in height, and live for many centuries remain standing with roots only going down about 10 feet?

The interesting thing about the redwood tree is that their root system is intertwined with the other redwood trees, literally holding each other up.  The trees grow very close together and are dependent on each other for nutrients, as well.  Only redwoods have the strength and ability to support other redwoods.

Likewise, we stand by being together.

Derek Kidner notes:

“With graceful brevity [these verses] depict the profit, resilience, comfort and strength bestowed by a true alliance; and these are worth setting against the demands it may make of us.  Such demands are not explicit here, but there would hardly be the need to set out the benefits of partnership if it involved no cost.  Its obvious price is a person’s independence: henceforth he must consult another’s interest and convenience, listen to another’s reasoning, adjust to another’s pace and style, keep faith with another’s trust.  As for the rewards that we find here, they are all joint benefits: there is no question of one partner exploiting the other” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 50-51).

If you have no one to lean on, to help you be productive, or to help you out of a jam, to protect you when you are attacked, go find a friend.  In fact, make several friends.  You need them.  So do I.

Why is Work Such a Problem? (Ecclesiastes 4:4-8)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  In our portion today we see Solomon dealing with some of the troubles of life when we live it “under the sun,” without God and without holding eternity and spiritual realities above the here and now and material possessions.  Here Solomon circles back around to the issue of work.  Since the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, nearly 1/3 of our lives, we had better get it right!

Here’s what the Preacher says…

4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.  This also is vanity and a striving after wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh. 6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?”  This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 

The first problem we see in this passage, one that is empty and vain, like wrestling with wind, is comparison, especially as it has to do with work.  Solomon notes that “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.”

“Every labor and every skill” (v. 4) undoubtedly means every type of labor and skill, rather than every individual instance of these things.  Solomon uses hyperbole here because there are other motivations for working (like getting rich, or simply providing for one’s family).  But much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior to others, either financially or socially.

We have a tendency to compare ourselves with others, observing that they are richer, smarter, more beautiful, more popular, have more obedient kids or a more attentive husband, a better job, a bigger house, a bigger church, a more sporty car.

As Derek Kidner puts it, we have a “craving to outshine or not to be outshone” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 45).  He goes on to say, “To feel oneself a failure is to discover in one’s soul the envy that Qoheleth detects here, in its pathetic form of resentments and grievances enjoyed” (ibid, p. 45).

Now, the Bible uses comparisons to help us gain wisdom.

For example, when Samuel wanted to say that loving God is more important than simply going through the religious motions, he said, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).  Or when Solomon wanted to praise the harmony of a loving home, he said, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

You can find many comparisons in the book of Proverbs.

But we often compare ourselves and our lives to that of others and we envy them.  This is what Asaph did in Psalm 73…

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.  3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

There seems to be nothing that riles us worse than seeing something get ahead, be favored, or pass us by.  This rivalry has already been hinted at in the words “evil work” in v. 3.

That’s why Marilyn Monroe once related:

Success makes so many people hate you.  I wish it wasn’t that way.  It would be wonderful to enjoy success without seeing envy in the eyes of those around you.

But the Greek author of tragedy Aeschylus said:

It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.

And Harold Coffin quipped:

Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.

Carol Ruvolo, in an article in Table Talk, informs us that…

Envy is not a form of admiration.  It does not think or say, “That person has godly qualities, spiritual gifts, efficient habits, productive skills, and proven ability that I want to imitate.”  Well-placed admiration is a good thing.  In fact, it is a key ingredient in spiritual mentoring.

The apostle Paul encouraged the Philippians: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17).  Admiration looks to the exemplary lives of others and gratefully, joyfully, humbly, and earnestly patterns its life after them for the purpose of walking worthy of our high calling in Christ and giving God glory. 

Envy doesn’t admire and pursue imitation of worthy mentors.  Instead it finds fault with them, attempts to bring them down, and lashes out in spiteful hatred when it is foiled.  It looks like Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife plotting to destroy a righteous man; it looks like Haman trying to frame Mordecai; and it looks like the Pharisees seeking to kill Jesus.

Envy is acquisitive, resentful, and selfish; it is always bad. It wants what others have simply because they have it, bears grudges against those who have what it doesn’t, and accuses God of being unfair.  It looks like Jacob conniving to steal the birthright from Esau; it looks like Rachel begrudging Leah her children; it looks like Peter pointing at John and asking Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 

Donald Whitney asks…

Can you serve your boss and others at work, helping them to succeed and be happy, even when they are promoted and you are overlooked? Can you work to make others look good without envy filling your heart? Can you minister to the needs of those whom God exalts and men honor when you yourself are neglected? Can you pray for the ministry of others to prosper when it would cast yours in the shadows? 

God wants us to be content with what we have, rather than wanting what others possess. Paul tells us that contentment is something we can learn.  Like Harold Coffin said, we should first learn to count our own blessings, reflecting on how good God has been to us.

We should be content even when bad things happen to us, but also when good things happen to others.  They may have more than us, look better than us, have all the success, but we can choose to be content with what we have.

In Hebrews 13:5 we read…

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Or just look at the Tenth Commandment: most of the things it tells us not to covet are things that money can buy.

Qoheleth has told us already that work is a gift from God (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:24).  But like all of God’s blessings, work has been corrupted by the fall.

The second problem Solomon deals with is laziness.  The opposite of the man who worked too much, it was a man who refused to work at all: “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (Ecclesiastes 4:5).

“We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference” (Eaton, p. 90).  Notice that he is called here what he is, a fool.

Now, this verse doesn’t mean that this man actually cannibalizes himself.  It just means that he is unwilling to do anything to help himself and thus ends up destroying himself.

A similar thought is voiced by Solomon in Proverbs 6

How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. 

That is why Solomon had advised:

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. 7 Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, 8 she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. 

And, in Proverbs 24, Solomon tries to speak to the heart of the sluggard:

30 I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, 31 and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. 32 Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. 33 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, 34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.

“His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care, and, in the end, his self-respect” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 46).

This is like so many today, people who want everything handed to them and given to them instead of working for it themselves.

These are the drop outs.  As the Preacher describes it, the fool eats what he has until he has nothing left at all:

He is the picture of complacency and unwitting self-destruction, for this comment on him points out a deeper damage than the wasting of his capital. His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care and, in the end, his self-respect. (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 46)

These verses describe two equal and opposite errors. “As toil can be all-consuming, so idleness is self-cannibalizing” (William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes (Louisville: John Knox, 2000), p. 50.) 

Which of these errors is more of a temptation for you?  Maybe you are tempted to envy what other people have and then wear yourself out trying to get it.  Or maybe you think you are above all of that, yet you have such a negative attitude about work that sometimes you avoid it altogether.

Either way Qoheleth has some good advice: “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6).

Against the background of people who worked with their hands, he first spoke of hands folded in laziness and here he points out the vanity and trying to seize the wind with “two hands full of toil.”

Again, this is a picture of contentment.  The quiet person is peaceful and composed. Rather than always striving for more, he or she is satisfied already.

It pictures Paul’s expression in Philippians 4

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

The contrast of indolence and scrambling for more is reinforced by the difference between having a single handful and having “two hands full.”  The person with two hands full is a two-fisted consumer, always grabbing as much as he can and always grasping for more.  But sometimes less is more, and the quiet person has found the right balance.  His hands are not folded, like the fool.  He is working hard enough to have a decent handful of what he needs in life.  But that is enough for him.  He does not keep demanding more and more but accepts what God has given through an honest day’s work. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiates: Why Everything Matters)

This beautiful expression “manages to convey the twofold thought of modest demands and inward peace: an attitude as far removed from the fool’s selfish indolence as from the thruster’s scramble for pre-eminence” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 46).

But a worse situation yet is found in vv. 7-8

7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?”  This also is vanity and an unhappy business. 

As Derek Kidner says:

“But if anything can be more tyrannous than envy, that thing is habit, when habit has turned into fixation.  Verses 7 and 8 picture the compulsive money-maker as someone virtually dehumanized, for he has surrendered to a mere craving and to the endless process of feeding it….Although for the sake of clarity that we are looking at a man with no family, we may well feel that his loneliness is no accident and that he will have no friends either, living for his routine as he does.  Such a man, even with a wife and children, will have little time for them, convinced that he is toiling for their benefit although his heart is elsewhere, devoted and wedded to his work” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 46-47).

This is the man married to his work, who sacrifices his family in the very process of providing for his family.

Catholic Thomas Merton once said:

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Hopefully you and I won’t spend our “whole lives” pursuing what will fade away, sacrificing what is permanent.  Hopefully we will realize the value of contentment and spend more time with our families.

Workaholics are addicted to their work in much the same way an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol.  Such a person rarely rests.  He is constantly worried about the next sale, business matter, or task.  A workaholic businessman often has difficulty seeing his friends as merely friends and not business prospects.  A workaholic pastor runs the risk of seeing people more as aids or obstacles to a project than as individuals in need of ministry.

What suffers most is our families and our spiritual lives.

As Christians, we must be careful not to let the cares and allurements of the world distract us from our devotion to Christ or from our responsibilities to our families and friends.  It is impossible to always be working or thinking about work and simultaneously be developing good relationships with others.  Workaholism invariably puts a strain on the family.  When a pastor or worker in full-time ministry succumbs to workaholism, the damage can include the family’s negative view of who God is.

So, fellow workaholic, I urge you, if you desire the blessings of God that he promises through the means of grace, do not delay to re-arrange your life and disentangle yourself from the things of this world that so easily make you too busy and tired to attend to them.  I am not suggesting that you refrain from working hard—far from it!—but I am suggesting that you consider whether your commitments have become an idol and if you have chosen to give priority to your professional calling over your spiritual calling and your responsibility for the spiritual life of your family.   If this is so, I urge you to repent.

Find quiet rest in your Savior more often than you do now.  Trust Him for your future and be content with what you have.

Find your satisfaction in the goodness of God, like the little girl who misquoted Psalm 23 but spoke better than she knew.  Rather than saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” she said, “The Lord is my shepherd; that’s all I want.”

Most of us want so many other things in life that it is hard for us to say that, but whether Jesus is all we want or not, the truth is that he is all we need.

A Depressing Look at Death and Oppression (Ecclesiastes 3:19-4:3)

Would you say that Ecclesiastes is a depressing book?  Sometimes it appears that way.  That is because Solomon is showing what life “under the sun,” that is life without God, with no spiritual or eternal focus, is really like.  These things slip in every once in a while, but Solomon seems to be showing us the poverty of materialism, hedonism and nihilism.  Life without God really does look pretty bleak.

In the last portion of Ecclesiastes 3 the Preacher once again brings up the specter of death.  Having compared man to beasts with regard to injustice in vv. 16-18, Solomon shows how both man and beast die.  Thus, v. 18 is a swing verse, completing the discussion on injustice and introducing the discussion about death.  Both injustice and the reality of death make life harsh and hard.

We know that Solomon is reflecting here from an “under the sun” perspective because of his reference to the children of men and to vanity.   But note that God is sovereign even over those who refuse to acknowledge Him.   Why is there injustice in the earth?  God is testing men, in order to show them that, apart from any absolute and eternal reference point, they are no more than beasts.

If men are not made in God’s image, then there can be no other explanation, for our observations of men and beasts reveal that, whatever may be our differences, we are basically the same, and all are consigned to the same fate.   If we do not have God’s Word, telling us that we are His children, rather than merely the offspring of men, then we have no grounds for supposing ourselves superior to the beasts.  Thus God tests men in order to help them see the folly of trying to make sense out of their lives and experiences apart from Him.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 21, 2011)

Reading vv. 17-22…

18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.  Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

At first Qoheleth’s comparison to animals may seem un-Biblical, like something an evolutionist would say.  Doesn’t the Bible say that we are only a little lower than the angels, with all of the animals under our dominion (see Psalm 8)?  Didn’t God make us in his own image (see Genesis 1:27), and doesn’t this distinguish us from every other creature in the world?

All this is true.  What Solomon is commenting on its not our origin or nature, but our destiny.

If both man and animals die, then what advantage do we have over animals?  That is the vexing question Solomon is dealing with.  Because God has “set eternity in our hearts” we want to know if this life is the end of it all, or whether something comes after death.

Does something within us survive death?  From the standpoint of life “under the sun” the answer is, “Who knows?”

Again, Solomon, pondering in his heart about injustice, saw that it was a way that God shows us more about ourselves—that sometimes we do act as beasts.

Matthew Henry writes:

It is no easy matter to convince proud men that they are but men (Ps 9:20), much more to convince bad men that they are beasts, that, being destitute of religion, they are as the beasts that perish, as the horse and the mule that have no understanding.  Proud oppressors are as beasts, as roaring lions and ranging bears.  Nay, every man that minds his body only, and not his soul, makes himself no better than a brute, and must wish, at least, to die like one.

But now Qoheleth links man and beast in our mortality.  Although especially created in the image of God, we die just like the animals.  Yet we yearn for immorality.

Brian Bill humorously entitled his sermon on this passage, “Man vs. Mongrel.”

Solomon’s point is that death is inevitable.  For all the differences between man and animals, we share this one thing in common—we all die.

Death is the great equalizer.  We are reminded of our mortality every time we see another friend or family member die, or when we read the obituaries.  Solomon is saying that death notices come when we see a dead animal as well.  A corpse on the road should remind us that we, too, will one day die.

It is possible that Solomon was contradicting the Egyptian concept of life after death, so that they buried powerful people with their possessions, wives and slaves, thinking that they would enjoy them in the afterlife.  However, they are still there in the tombs today.

This earthly life will not last forever.  The day will come when they breathe their last, just like us.  With our parting breath, we will all go to the same place, falling to the earth and returning to dust (see Job 10:9; Psalm 22:15).

This is, by the way, only making reference to our bodies.  They do go into the ground.

By using this language, the Preacher is reminding us of God’s curse against Adam’s sin: dust we are, and to the dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19; cf. Psalm 90:3; 104:29).  “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”  To this extent and in this way, we are no better than animals.  In the words of the Psalmist [Psalm 49],

7 Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, 8 for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, 9 that he should live on forever and never see the pit. 10 For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. 12 Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah 14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.  Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. 

Yet the Psalmist goes a step beyond the Preacher.  His perspective includes God and an afterlife, for he goes on to say…

15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.

Thus, we are not entirely like the beasts.  Yes, we die, but after death we can live again.

The Preacher says…

21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 

The Psalmist says…

15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.

Both are speaking about the inner person, the immaterial part called the spirit or soul.  The Preacher does not know where the soul goes after death, but the Psalmist believes that God would ransom his soul from the power of Sheol.

Solomon’s “under the sun” conclusion is…

22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.  Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

The best that Solomon can offer, and it is not illegitimate, is to enjoy the moment. Rejoice in the satisfaction of a job well done.  We should accept God’s good gifts in life and give thanks to Him.

But Solomon is still not satisfied with this, and neither should we.  He asks, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”

God has, of course, enabled us to see what will occur after we die by giving us additional revelation after Solomon’s time.  In his under the sun thinking, Solomon has an answer for the question, “What will happen after him?”  The answer is, nothing – because death ends it all, and therefore ultimately his life has no more significance or meaning than the life of an animal.

We know that when we die, we will be with Christ, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8 where Paul says, “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” and Philippians 1:23, where again Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”  And as Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

We can contrast the view of the unbeliever, who in Solomon’s words is perceiving life “under the sun” to the view of the believer.

View of the unbelieverView of the Believer
Man will die and cease to exist just like the beastMan will die just like the beast in the sense that he will turn to dust, but will be raised for eternal death or life.
No one can know if man will ascend upward.Man will ascend upward for judgment.

For Solomon, in this state of mind, the future was uncertain, so enjoy the present.

While there may be some present joy in sin, the fact that God has placed eternity in the hearts of man seems to leave man incapable of enjoying life without Him.  If a man realizes (even suspects) that he is going to be eternally judged for his actions, little joy can be found in wickedness.  There would always be the question, “Am I going to be held accountable for what I am doing?”

Based on his “under the sun” view of death, the response to the one Solomon advocated is despair, which reflecting on unjust oppression causes (4:1-3).

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. 

Christopher Cone says,

“These three verses contain some of the harshest language in Ecclesiastes, and certainly one of the strongest conclusions: if for no other reason than oppression, life is not worth living.  This conclusion is more hopeless than even suicidal nihilism” (p. 251)

In this passage Solomon is saying that, with all the oppression, evil, suffering and injustice in the world, it would be quite natural, given an “under the sun” mentality, to think ourselves as better off dead or maybe never having been born.

It is instructive that when Paul expressed his own longing to leave this life, it wasn’t to escape present sufferings, but to enjoy the “better by far” benefits of being with Christ.  He went on to say, “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:25).  Unlike the unbeliever, we have a wonderful place to go when we leave this vale of tears.  And unlike him we have something worth sharing while we live on earth–the love of Christ.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 42)

This bit of hyperbole should not be taken literally; after all, Solomon wants to hold out the hope that even those trapped in an “under the sun” existence can find their way back to God, just as he had.  But his point is clear: life under the sun, from a merely “secular” perspective, is filled with pain and sorrow, so much so that one is better off dead or never having been born.  (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, May 24, 2011)

We noticed last week that this picks up again the theme of injustice and that we hear a lot today about oppressors and the oppressed.  A lot of this emphasis today comes from Karl Marx.

Larry Taunton has an interesting article called “Karl Marx vs Charles Spurgeon: An Epic Struggle for the Souls of Men in 19th-Century London.”  He writes…

“It is extraordinary to me that both Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) lived and worked in the same city at the same time.  Both were, in a sense, evangelists contending for the souls of men with their competing visions of humanity.  Moreover, each was at the height of his powers at the same time as the other.  While Marx was preaching salvation through bloody revolution, Spurgeon, on the other side of the city, was preaching salvation through the blood and grace of Jesus Christ.”

Britain at this time was the center of world governance and economics, but it was also “convulsed with the problems endemic to massive social change.”  Marx divided the populace into the Oppressors, the Haves, those in charge; and the Oppressed, the Have Nots.  He believed that the key problems in society did not lie in the hearts of individual people, but in the societal structures, in the institutions.  Thus he not only attacked capitalism, but also the church and the family. 

Spurgeon, of course, knew that the real source of oppression lay in the heart of individuals.  He knew, as Solzhenitsyn said,

“If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds [read The Oppressors, the Capitalists, or the Christians], and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

In reality, and in line with the Bible itself, oppression in the world happens because of sinful, selfish hearts.  Instead of regarding, honoring and helping others, it’s “every man for himself.”

Solomon had already taken up this sad spectacle in vv. 16-18, now he returns to it.

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 

Notice here that Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wept for both groups—for the oppressed and the oppressors.  Instead of taking sides he sympathized with both.  He sought comfort for both because both are negatively affected by oppression.

Compassion for the oppressed is common (even in the Bible) and quite natural, whereas compassion for the oppressor, the criminal, requires a higher work of grace in our own hearts.

To escape these evil deeds, Solomon thought that death or even not being born would be preferable…

2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. 

That phrase “the dead who are already dead” probably does not mean people who are alive but walk around as if they were dead (spiritually dead while physically alive), but rather just emphasizing that these people have already reached the state where they are relieved of these evils.

These verses express the despair of living in a world with so much evil and suffering and oppression.  It is not the “good” creation God made, but the fallen world convulsing in sin in every way and every age.

We won’t escape suffering and trouble in this life.  Fortunately, because we can have an “above the sun,” or heavenly perspective based on further revelation, we know what Joseph knew, that God even works evil for good.  And we know that, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

While we have a better hope, we still need to do what we can to relieve pain, to show compassion to those who suffer, and to offer mercy to oppressors as well.  And we know that ultimately God will right every wrong.  Because the Judge of all the earth will do what is right.

The Prickly Problem of Injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18)

As we finish up Ecclesiastes 3 we see the Preacher dealing with the issue of injustice here on earth and whether real justice can be expected here, then Solomon gets back to the issue of dying, one issue that frequency disturbs him.

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

Even if someone believes that we are nothing more than mere material beings, whose choices have nothing to do with a sense of morality but are just physical/chemical responses we have no control over, we don’t live that way.

Materialists and atheists hardly live consistently with their worldview.  Instead, they say we are nothing more than the result of physical or chemical processes, but in reality they make choices every day and do cry out “This is unfair” or “This can’t be right.”  They know when they see right and wrong.

The reality is, they deny real choice and a sense of morality because they want to escape any thought of being held accountable for their life.

One of the more consistent arguments against Christianity is the existence of evil.  If there is a God, why does He allow evil?  Well, there are several possible answers to that, but let me just say that we all have questions at times of “Why do innocent people suffer?” and “Why do bad people get away with it?”

That seems to be part of the issue Solomon is dealing with here in vv. 16-18.

A phenomenon that makes it most difficult for us to understand God’s ways, and respond to them properly, is the problem of injustice in this life.  Solomon believed God would eventually balance the scales of justice (v. 17), and that He uses injustice for His own purposes (v. 18).

We don’t always get justice here on earth, Solomon says, in v. 16.  There is “wickedness” even in “the place of justice” and “the place of righteousness.”  God has established governing authorities for our good, to reward good and punish evil, according to Romans 13.  But we know it doesn’t always turn out this way.

We believe that life is ordered by moral principles, that when violated, receive punishment.  But that doesn’t always seem to happen, at least not soon, or not in this life at all.

Asaph dealt with this in Psalm 73.  Asaph starts out parroting his theology lesson for that day—” Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”  Then he explains…

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. 

He observed that these wicked and arrogant people were prosperous, healthy, not in trouble even though they walked around in pride and violence.  They were always at ease, living on easy street.  In contrast, Asaph goes on to say that he “had been stricken and rebuked every morning” (v. 14).  To try to understand this injustice in life was “a wearisome task” (v. 16) until, and notice the turning point in his thoughts, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

Now he began thinking from God’s point of view.  He was able to see their “end,” what would ultimately happen to them in the future.  Even though earlier he had wondered whether it was worth keeping himself pure and following God, now he reflects back and says…

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.

In other words, “I was thinking like an animal.”  Animals don’t think about God or the future and Asaph now realizes that all he was thinking about was man, in the here and now.  He wasn’t thinking about God, about spiritual realities, or about eternity.

But notice how he ends…

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

First, he had compared what the wicked had now (seeming good) with their future (definitely bad), whereas his own was good (glory).  Second, he learned that having God was more important than having anything else, or everything else.

As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “We don’t know that Christ is everything we need until he is everything we have.”

Again, Solomon says…

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 

This issue of injustice will come up several times throughout Ecclesiastes.

Here Qoheleth sounds like one of the Biblical prophets. Men like Amos and Jeremiah were always crying for justice, and rightly so because justice is one of the deepest longings of the human heart.  It starts during childhood: “Hey, that’s not fair!”  Unfortunately, unfairness does not stop at the playground but goes all the way through life.

The problem here is that even “the place of justice” is unjust.  The very place where we most expect and most need to receive justice turns out to be a place of unfairness.  Even the court system is corrupt. 

At times even innocent people are convicted for crimes they never committed, maybe based on being at the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe because of someone’s desire for revenge, or maybe based upon skin color.

At the other end, some people get away with murder because they can hire the best lawyers.

We feel at a loss because there seems to be nothing we can do about this.

The Preacher’s frustration is not simply that injustice is done, but that it goes unpunished.  According to Martin Luther, he is “not complaining because there is wickedness in the place of justice but because the wickedness in the place of justice cannot be corrected.” 

When the halls of justice become corridors of corruption, where can righteousness be found?

Solomon will pick up this theme again in Ecclesiastes 4:1…

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun.  And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 

We hear a lot about oppressors and the oppressed in discussion about racism and intersectionality issues.  Marx and now much of society wants us to think only in these terms.

But there is a reality that much oppression happens, here and around the world.  Oppressors (by nature) have power on this side, but God is not on their side.

God is not on the side of injustice but stands against it with all his power.  We see this again and again in the Biblical prophets.  Amos preached against people who “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy” (Amos 4:1; cf. Proverbs 14:31).  Ezekiel warned about extortion and stealing from foreigners (Ezekiel 22:12).  Zechariah listed the people who were most likely to be oppressed: widows, orphans, travelers, and the poor (Zechariah 7:9–10; cf. Exodus 22:21–22). It is not just words and actions that bring oppression but also legislation.  Thus Isaiah pronounced God’s woe against “those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isaiah 10:1).

When the Preacher saw what was really happening in the world, he longed for someone to comfort the oppressed and dry their tears.  In a culture of exploitation, he wanted to rectify wrongs and console the victims of injustice.  Twice he lamented that no one was able to offer any comfort.

Twice in Ecclesiastes 4:1 he says “they had no one to comfort them” and “there was no one to comfort them.”  And notice this was both for the oppressed AND the oppressors!

The Preacher had an intense, heart-felt response to these people and the pain they were in, just like we see exhibited with Jesus.

On the one hand, Jesus responded to the plight of the oppressed with lamentation, like the tears that Jesus shed for the harassed and helpless people of Israel, “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

On the other hand, he responded to their oppressors with indignation, like the angry words that Jesus had for the moneychangers at the temple (e.g., Luke 19:45–46).  

But what the Preacher mostly felt was frustration that he could not bring an end to oppression.

Even though Solomon, at that time one of the mightiest men on earth, could do nothing about it, he believed that ultimately God would.

17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.

Here the Preacher applies what he had taught earlier in the chapter, that “there is a season for everything and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

So there is a time for justice.  Thus, rather than getting angry or sad about all the oppression we see around the world, we can trust God to make all things right in the end.

This does not mean that there is never a time for us to pursue justice now.  Depending on our place in society — the spiritual or civil authority that God has given to us — it is our responsibility to fight against oppression.  As fathers and mothers, as pastors and elders, as citizens and public officials, we are called to do what is right in the home, in the church, and in society.

Yet, unfortunately, even our very best efforts will not bring an end to all oppression.  There will still be violence against women and children.  Police officers will still get killed in the line of duty.  There will still be structures of corruption in business and government.  Foreign powers will still abuse their own people in defiance of world order.  But in all the situations that we do not have the power or authority or wisdom to resolve, God will see to it that justice is done.

Our confidence ultimately does not lie in a justice system but in the Chief Justice himself, Jesus Christ.  God has promised a day when his Son will judge the righteous and the wicked (Acts 17:30–31).  The time for his work of divine retribution is the Day of Judgment, when he will render his final verdict on all mankind.

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25), asked Abraham.  And the answer is, “Yes, he will be just and do justice.”

Indeed, the wicked will one day be punished forever (Matthew 25:41–46), and the righteous will be comforted by the Spirit of God, who will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 21:4).

As the Preacher will go on to say at the very end of his book, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

Sometimes the certainty of future judgments, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, seems not enough for us.  But who are we to teach God His business?

Solomon next says that we need to learn some truth about ourselves:

18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 

Again, this phrase “I said in my heart” represents the conclusions Solomon comes to after observing life and meditating on these realities.

He says first that the difficulties of life, like injustice, is one of the ways God tests us.

We know from the New Testament that trials are meant to test us.  James speaks of trials that come, and if we endure them with joy, we will “pass the test” and become mature.  Peter also talks about trials being like the fire that purifies the gold.

God’s purpose in trials is to test us to approve us.  God doesn’t test us so that we will fail, but so that we will pass the test.

Testing teaches us things about ourselves.  For example, Jesus said to Peter…

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

In the very next breath, Peter said, “”Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 

And we know that Peter didn’t do that, but denied Jesus three times.

Peter was full of bravado and self-confidence.  He believed that he would stand up for Jesus when the pressure was on.  But Peter was going to be tested.

We might think that Peter failed the test.  On one level he did.  But Jesus didn’t pray that Peter wouldn’t fail, but that “your faith may not fail.”  That’s why Peter later taught others that trials purify our faith, burning away the dross of bravado and self-confidence, leaving real, true faith in Jesus Christ.

Peter should have, but didn’t at the moment, learn two things about himself.  First, he was in that moment very vulnerable to Satan.  Second, he was in that moment very valuable to Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, Jesus Christ is praying for all of us.

Solomon says here in Ecclesiastes 3:18 that one thing we might learn about ourselves, especially in times of injustice, is how beastly we act.  He said, “God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.”

That is not the whole truth about ourselves, we are more than that.  But it is true that sometimes we act like that.  And it is no wonder, since children have been taught that we are but animals in school!

Hopefully this statement shocks us into living as God intended us, “in his image,” but as we do it should force us to remember that others are also “in his image” and we should do everything we can to protect and enable other image bearers to flourish.

So let’s do what we can to bring justice to other image bearers, and be willing to leave ultimate judgment to God.

Enjoying Life and Trusting God’s Sovereign Control (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15)

It was at Citadel Bible College when I first heard of Don Richardson through his book Peace Child and later his book Eternity in Their Hearts.  Richardson was a missionary to the Sawi Tribes of Dutch New Guinea.

Though the bloodthirsty Sawi prized treachery as the highest virtue, they also had a sacred ritual for reconciling two tribes when they were at war.  The chief’s own son would be offered to the other tribe as a “peace child.”  Richardson saw this ritual as a parable of the gospel, in which the Chief of all chieftains made peace with the lost tribe of humanity by offering up his only Son.

Based on his experiences with the Sawi, Richardson began to wonder if any other people groups had similar traditions — sacred rituals that served as redemptive analogies for the gospel.  He discovered that many people groups — both ancient and modern — have partial knowledge of religious truth, they have a sense of god.

Whether these beliefs come from what God has revealed in creation or from remnants of a faith passed down since Biblical times, they bear witness to God and to the gift of his atoning grace.

According to Richardson, all of these stories prove the truth of something written in Ecclesiastes: God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  We are born with the longing for another world — a life with God that is beyond the reach of mortal time.

It is similar to a famous quote from C. S. Lewis…

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Or, go back further to Augustine, who in his Confessions, said…

We all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, a longing for infinite love and beauty. Only God can fill that emptiness, but we tend to want to take the hunger pains away by filling the hole with substitutes–possessions and wealth, pleasure, power and prestige. We may feel satisfied for a while, but ultimately the restlessness and longing return.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Solomon acknowledges this longing after his famous poem about time in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil–this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Having acknowledged that God is sovereign over time, Solomon returns to the subject of work and asks a question he had asked before “What gain was the worker from his toil?”

Like most of us, Solomon wanted to know what kind of return he would get for his investment of time and effort.  He had experienced “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”

Although he acknowledges that work is a God-given gift, he still struggles with whether it is worth it all, as far as what one gains from it.

So “What gain has the worker with his toil?”  Many scholars believe that the answer is “None.”

The difficulty with that conclusion is that it goes against the essentially positive message of verse 11, that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.”

So Solomon is answering the question “What gain is there in toil?”  Essentially, what Solomon will answer is that even work has its “beautiful” moments, but that God has “put eternity into man’s heart” which makes it difficult to understand everything fully, but that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the (non-working) moments fully.

Some people resent God’s control over time and eternity; they would rather set their own agenda. But the Solomon of Ecclesiastes could see the beauty of God’s sovereignty. Not only is there a time for everything, but God always does things at just the right time. Therefore, the Preacher praised God for his beautiful timing.

Solomon tells us that man’s life is God’s good gift, and that life includes both work and pleasures.

We can either believingly accept life as a gift, and thank God for it or we can grudgingly hold life as a burden, and thus miss the beauty and the gift of each day.

In the Old Testament the word “beautiful” is first a visual word, but eventually means something good, right, beneficial and pleasing.

It is in this sense that God can be said to have beautiful timing.  At whatever time he does things, God is always right on time.  It may not fit our timing, but his timing is perfect.

From beginning to end, God does everything decently and in order.  Derek Kidner thus speaks of “the kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.”

Sometimes we criticize God for being too late, or else too early.  Yet often in retrospect we can see that God’s agenda and timing were better all along.

When I was much younger, possibly in middle school, we were scheduled to travel up to Kansas City for the graduation of my uncle from dental school.

We chafed at the length of time it took my mother to get ready to go, putting us an hour or more late.  However, as we traveled through Joplin, we could see that a tornado had hit there just a few hours earlier.

Sometimes when God doesn’t do things the way we want him to, or on the schedule we want, something might happen that ends up changing our lives!

Sometimes being in the right place at God’s time instead of at the wrong place on your own schedule can even save your life.

It is all in the timing. Rather than insisting on having everything run according to our own schedule, we need to learn to trust God’s timetable.

Knowing that God is in control does not necessarily mean we always understand or appreciate his timing.  Often we do not, and this can be a real frustration for us.  So having affirmed the beauty of God’s sovereign authority over time, the Preacher pointed out one of the basic dilemmas of our earthly existence: God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

It is a good thing that God puts eternity into our hearts, because it moves us to seek out God and heaven, but it is also a difficult thing, for we are right now caught between time and eternity, between a sin-cursed earth and the glories of heaven.

We were made to live forever (see Genesis 3:22), and thus we have a desperate longing for never-ending life with God.  Many of the Bible’s most precious promises offer us everlasting blessing.  

One of my favorites is Psalm 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall [chase after] me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

He has kept His promises by giving eternal life to anyone who believes in his Son, who offered his life for our sins before rising from the grave with power over death.

But we still live in a time-bound universe, struggling in the frustrations of our mortality and finitude.

The eternity in our hearts gives us a deep desire to know what God has done from beginning to end. Each of us is born with “a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive . . . to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world . . . and to discern its purpose and destiny” (Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life , Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p. 66).

God, of course, can see the beginning, middle and end all together, but we cannot.  We see the parade from the street level, with one event coming into view after another.  God has a bird’s-eye-view wherein He can see everything at once.

It is this desire that separates us from the animal kingdom.  It is this desire to understand the whole that has led to science, philosophy and even theology.

These limitations are what has frustrated the Preacher from the beginning.

He is looking for meaning in life but finds it hard or even impossible to understand. “The human being has ‘eternity’ in his heart — his Creator has made him a thinking being, and he wants to pass beyond his fragmentary knowledge and discern the fuller meaning of the whole pattern — but the Creator will not let the creature be his equal” (John Jarick, quoted in Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes , New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 121).

We want to make sense of this world, but God is the only one who knows everything and how it all fits together and how it all results in a good purpose for us.

What do we do with these frustrations?

One option is to leave God out entirely.

According to filmmaker Woody Allen, “The universe is indifferent . . . so we create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world . . . a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back.  It’s meaningless.  But it’s important that we create some sense of meaning, because no perceptible meaning exists for anybody.”

That sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

But there is a better way to respond and that is to follow this Preacher in his consistent conclusions that nothing on earth truly and fully satisfies the human mind or heart.  And this proves that we were made for another world, made for something better beyond this world.

Again, C. S. Lewis said “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 120).

“The sweetest thing in all my life,” Lewis wrote in one of his novels, “has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from” (C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, 1956), p. 75). 

Elsewhere he describes this longing as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 30–31).

Yes, someday, in eternity, we will be able to understand what God has done in our lives.  In the meantime, the Preacher identifies two things we should all be doing—going about our business and trusting God’s sovereignty.

First, we should take whatever time we have been given and use it joyfully in the service of God.  In verses 12–13 the Preacher tells us to get busy: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man.”

Back in verse 10 the Preacher had talked about “the business that God has given to the children of man.”  Here he tells us how to go about that business — joyfully and energetically, with gratitude to God for the pleasure of serving him.

One good way to understand and apply this verse is to put it in the first person and use it as a job description: “There is nothing better than to be joyful and to do good as long as I live, and to eat and drink and take pleasure in all my work — this is God’s gift to me.”

Be joyful and do good—a lot of good can come of that in our relationships and our work.

The Preacher tells us to be joyful.  We may not always be happy about the way things are going in life, but we can always find joy in the grace of our God and the work he has given us to do.  No matter how bad our circumstances may be–whether through the natural hardships of life or the harm done to us by others or the painful consequences of our own rebellious sin–in every situation there is always a way for us to glorify God, and this should give us joy.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 94)

The Preacher also tells us to “do good” — a phrase that should be taken in its moral and ethical sense. To “do good” is to do good works. 

We are not saved by good works, of course, but we are saved for good works.

In his grace, God has given every one of us something good to do for him.  We do not work because we have nothing better to do, but because God has called us to work for him.  We can apply this at home, at school, at work and at church.

We should do all these things as long as we live, working right to the end of our lives. When the Preacher says “as long as they live,” he is remembering what he said back in verse 2, namely, that there is a time for us to die.

As we do good work in our generation, the Preacher gives us permission to celebrate the good things of life — eating and drinking and enjoying the pleasures that God has made for us to enjoy.  Of course, it is always a temptation for us to live for earthly pleasure, serving our appetites instead of serving Jesus (see Romans 16:18).  The good things in life so easily become our gods, which is absolute vanity, as the Preacher has already told us (see Ecclesiastes 2:1ff.).

But the way to resist this temptation is not by avoiding everything.  Rather, we avoid idolatry by gratefully receiving the good things of life as blessings from God.  Do not be a user and a taker; be a receiver and a thanker.  This is all part of offering back to God what he has given to us in joyful service, while we have the time.

The other thing that the Preacher tells us to do — his second insight — is to let God be God, reverently accepting his sovereignty over time and eternity.  He said, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him.  That which is, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:14–15).

When he says, “whatever God does,” the Preacher may be thinking back to the beginning of the chapter, when he said that there is “a season . . . for everything . . . and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  “Whatever God does” includes everything that God does, at whatever time he does it.  He is sovereign over the times and the seasons.  Whatever he does will endure: no one can add to it or subtract from it — now until forever.

Notice that the purpose of God’s works, both his timing and his ways, is designed “so that people fear before him.”  This fear is “the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10) and will be Solomon’s final conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13.

To fear God doesn’t mean to cower before Him and want to hide from Him, but to desire above all things to please Him.

Martin Luther said, “This is what it means to fear God: to have God in view, to know that He looks at all our works, and to acknowledge Him as the Author of all things” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:55).

The fear of the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom, but also the beginning of joy, of contentment, of an energetic and purposeful life.  The things that are outside our control should not cause us to despair but to hope in God, who is sovereign over everything that happens.

God Over All, part 3 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Over the last three weeks we’ve been looking at Ecclesiastes 3 and this poetic statement about God designing life with seasons and opportunities for us.  Let’s read it again and make a few more observations about it…

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

First of all, in noting these contrasts, like birth and death, killing and healing, weeping and laughing, finding and losing, loving and hating, war and peace, Solomon is not recommending a determinism with no moral choices. Materialism tells us we are nothing more than parts of a machine (or computer) with no real choices, while pantheism teaches that it is a mistake to draw moral distinctions.

But we know from Scripture that we are free moral creatures with a conscience that tells us that some things are right and other things are wrong.  This passage is not teaching us that we must just bow to the circumstances and never fight against evils.

Yes, the rhythms of life bring us into situations that we would rather not be in, but we do have a choice as to how we react during in those situations.  We are not robots that have to follow some programming.

I love with Nightbirde, a young singer named Jane Marczewski said on America’s Got Talent this past week…

You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore, before you decide to be happy.

I believe what Solomon is saying is that there are vicissitudes of life that we might not choose to be in, but that in the midst of it we should look for God’s wisdom and God’s grace to respond in a way that pleases God and brings Him glory.

Zack Eswine identifies some other lessons we might draw from this passage, recognizing that it brings up both disquieting and delightful events.  We should not deny the disquieting times for ourselves or for others.

“Some of us would rather not think about what is delightful (glass half empty people).  Others of us avoid what is disquieting.  The Preacher intends to mentor us into a way of being human before God that has a capacity to honestly recognize what is there and the grace to look to God for it and within it no matter what it is” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 121).

If we are theologically unprepared, he says, we are likely to believe that if we or someone we love experiences one of these disquieting things, then God has singled us out, made an exception of us, and he does not love us.

Likewise, if we experience a delightful occasion, we might believe that God is bringing us favorably into his “clique” or on the other hand, tricking us, baiting us, and setting us up for a fall.

But we have to disabuse ourselves of these thoughts, for they are not necessarily true, especially for those of us who have been justified by faith and live under grace.

Living under grace we know that disquieting experiences are brought into our lives for a good purpose and even if they be discipline for sin, they are brought by the loving hand of our heavenly Father for our good.  He loves us even though we are going through disquieting events.  In fact, according to Romans 5 we can rejoice in our sufferings.

Likewise, delightful occasions in our lives come to us (and often even to unbelievers) and we should be always thankful for them, but never lift ourselves up as God’s favorites above others.

We should trust God and be content in the disquieting time and enjoy and thank God for the delightful times.

If we are relationally unprepared, we may believe that if someone else experiences one of these disquieting things or delightful situations, that they must have done something to deserve it or reward it.

Either way, we can self-righteously judge the one who goes through disquiet or secretly covet and envy the delightful experiences of others.  We won’t know how to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” unless we allow ourselves to experience with God the changing rhythms of life.

Likewise, our friends and family may mishandle us.  When we experience one of those disquieting events (death, divorce, financial loss), that we all have sought to avoid all our lives, they sting us with theological sophisms or relational shallowness.

By naming these things the way he does, the Preacher prepares us for these times and how to respond to them.  The act of naming and preparing is a long-standing practice that goes back to the garden.

There and then God told Adam and Eve what they could expect regarding the landscape of their days.  He told them about the land, the animals, their relationship, their work and He told them about two trees and how one was off limits.

Then, after they disobeyed God, He prepared them ahead of time about how their lives would change, how they would now experience the disquieting things in life, like pain in childbirth and difficulties in getting things to grow.

Throughout history God prepared His people by sending prophets to tell them what would happen to them, the disquieting things that would happen if they disobeyed His law.  Jesus told his disciples ahead of time what they could expect in the world.

What are some applications we can take from this text?

First, we need to look for the purpose and nearness of God, we need the grace to relate honestly toward the time dominance of life under the sun.  This word “time” is repeated 28 times in this passage to remind us that everything in life happens in time—time that comes, and time that goes.

Second, we need to grace therefore to relate teachably toward each day we have been given.  In the Garden time was nothing but good, allowing Adam and Eve to walk with God and enjoy His presence.  Time was beautiful.

But now, post-Eden, time “hollers at us with stress.  More often than not, time haunts us, pressures us, makes us feel our shortcomings, and reveals the misuse or boredom of life.  Time still gives room for human decision making but the times in which we choose are no longer pure and the decisions we make are done as in rooms infested with creeping bugs in rooted wood” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 125)

We can agree that “for everything there is a season, and a time for ever matter under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1), yet we still have Eden flowing through our veins, we have “eternity” in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11).  “Our souls instinctively yearn for a purpose life without end under this time-chained sun” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 126).

Jesus lived knowing the times.  How many times did he say, “My time is not yet at hand”?

Jesus was born in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

Herod wanted to know what time the star appeared and infanticide followed (Matt. 2:16-17).

When time was fulfilled, Jesus came preaching (Mark 1:14-15).

Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days, after which Satan waited for an “opportune time” to tempt him again (Luke 4:13).

Demons trembled because their dreaded time had come (Matthew 8:29)

Lazarus faced death, but Jesus waited two more days (John 11:5).

They wanted to arrest Jesus, but his house had not yet come (John 7:30).

The feast awaits, but his hour had not yet come (John 7:8).

When the Passover arrives, Jesus announces, “My time is at hand” (Mark 14:41).

They crucify him, at the third hour He spills His blood (Mark 15:25).

The afternoon quits, for three hours it is dark (Matt. 27:45).

It is finished (John 19:30).

Mary weeps.  Jesus waits three days (John 20:1-16)

Thomas doubts.  Jesus waits another eight days (John 20:26).

For forty days Jesus preaches, then ascends to heaven (Acts 1:11).

Ten days later, the Spirit is outpoured and the church is born.

Purpose, tension and time are gathered up.  One greater than Solomon has made it so.

Our way of relating to God and to our neighbors will have to adjust.  Your schedule will be quite different after you have that first, or second, or third, child.  You will no longer be able to do some of the things you did before.  You are in a different season of life.  Instead of bucking up against the season and bewailing the way it “used to be” we need to learn to adjust to this new season and find new ways of doing things.

To treat someone who is in a time to mourn as if it were a time to dance is insensitive and unwise.  Likewise, doing our work looks different during a time of building up than it does during a time of tearing down.  You treat your teenager differently than you treated her when she was a child.  We need to learn to adjust to the seasons.

Because we are committed to arrange life the way we want it and to avoid that which we do not prefer, many of us remain inflexible and unskilled in this wisdom of seasons.  The Preacher has taught us to name these seasons without denial.  Now he teaches us to yield to them and to adjust our expectations accordingly when they cycle through our lives and the lives of our family and neighbors.  He will teach us more about this in Ecclesiastes 3:9-14.

“The adjustment of seasons challenges old and young alike.  Many of our frustrations rise from our blindness to the change of season or to the pain or joy of them, and we struggle to adjust our expectations” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 130).

How much happier we would be if we would recognize the change in seasons and adjust to it skillfully!

Because we struggle to adjust…

“we try to force others to act or the world to exist within the confines of the handful of seasons that we are most comfortable with.  We try to control others to stay within the seasonal behaviors that we most prefer rather than to learn how to change and to adjust teachably, slowly, and adequately according to the grace of wisdom” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 130).

I like the attitude displayed by Mr. John…

During a Sunday class, the question was asked, “In your time of discouragement, what is your favorite Scripture?”  A young man said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” Psalm 23:1.  A middle age woman said, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” Psalm 46:1.  Another woman said, “In this world you shall have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome this world” John 16:33-35.

Then old Mr. John who was 80 years old, with head of white hair and dark black skin, stood up and said with as much strength as he could muster, “It says, ‘And it came to pass…’ 85 times in the Bible.”  The class started to laugh a little, thinking that old Mr. John’s lack of memory was getting the best of him.

When the snickering stopped, he said, “At 30, I lost my job with six hungry mouths and a wife to feed.  I didn’t know how I would make it.  At 40, my eldest son was killed overseas in the war.  It knocked me down.  At 50, my house burned to the ground.  Nothing was saved out of the house.  At 60, my wife of 40 years got cancer.  It slowly ate away at her.  We cried together many a night on our knees in prayer.  At 65, she died. I still miss her today.

“The agony I went through in each of these situations was unbelievable.  I wondered where was God.  But each time I looked in the bible I saw one of those 85 verses that said, ‘And it came to pass’ I felt that God was telling me, my pain and my circumstances were also going to pass and that God would get me through it.” (From a sermon by Stephen Sheane, The Table of Shewbread, 5/25/2011)

Yes, bad times will come into our lives, but they too shall pass.  Enjoy the good times while you have them, trust God when you do not, while life is rough.

One of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis is The Screwtape Letters, seemingly stolen correspondence between a senior tempter and a junior tempter, interacting on how best to destroy the life of the patient, an Englishman.

Chapter 8 is called the Law of Undulation.

In that chapter Lewis has Uncle Screwtape writing to Wormwood, the junior tempter and talking about the fact that their Enemy, which is God, takes his own children through “peaks and valleys,” what we are identifying here as delightful times and disquieting times.  He says that this is quite natural and normal.

He says…

 As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.  The dryness and dulness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy wants to make of it, and then do the opposite.  Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.  The reason is this.  To us a human is primarily good; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.  But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing.  One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth.  He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.  We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons…

And that is where the troughs come in.  You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment.  But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use.  Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless.  He cannot ravish.  He can only woo.  

He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation.  But He never allows this state of affairs to last long.  Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives.  He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.  It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.  

He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.  Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Enjoy the peaks, trust and obey when you go through the valleys.

God Over All, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of Ecclesiastes.  We are in the first section of chapter 3, which speaks of the rhythms of life, all of which are under God’s control, not ours.

Solomon says…

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

It is obvious from these verses that we live in a world of changing.  Everything around us, including ourselves, we are changing; but God does not change.

The author of Hebrews says about Jesus:

10 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, 12 like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” 

God is always the same and He controls the seasons and the times.  Therefore, we are to pay attention to the seasons and the times.

What Paul says in Ephesians is useful for our understanding of using time correctly:

15 Look carefully then how you walk (that is, “pay attention to how you live),” not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 

Every man is to consider himself as a particular object of God’s providence, under the same care and protection of God as if the world had been made for him alone.  It is not by chance that any man is born at such a time, of such parents, and in such place and condition…Every soul comes into the body at such a time and in such circumstances by the express designment of God, according to some purposes of His will and for some particular ends.  (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 322)

Now, as we look at this poem again, we need to remember that it is a poem about life in a fallen world.

That is not to say that the actions listed here are always or inherently evil.  For example, those who claim that killing, war, and hatred are always evil have not carefully read their Bibles.  As we mentioned last week, the Bible contains regulations for capital punishment, examples of just wars, laws on sacrificing animals, and exhortations to hate what God hates.

But after verse 2 introduces the beginning and end (birth and death), the rest of the poem follows with a summary of everything in between those two times within the context of a fallen world.  Words such as kill, weep, mourn, hate, and war, as well as the reality of death, did not exist before Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  

So we should read this poem, in part, as a sad poem—a reminder of paradise lost.  We also take the promises of Revelation 21:3–4—“ “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”—to cover all the former realities of the curse in play here.

Last week we talked about the contrasts in vv. 2-3, reminders of how life is a series of beginnings and endings.  We like beginnings, don’t we?  Endings are frequently quite sad.

The vital thing is for us to submit to the moment (remember that “time” here in v. 1 is understood to be “opportunities”) and respond appropriately as God guides us through life.

Verse 4 runs the gamut of human emotions.

…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Have you ever laughed at the wrong moment?

Ray Stedman speaks of being at a funeral when he was younger and the leader asked everyone present to stand up on their feet.  One of his friends whispered to him, “What else could you stand on?”  He broke up—wrong place, wrong time.

We’ve all done things like that.

Solomon says, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.”  Sign me up for laughter, I enjoy doing that.  But I don’t like weeping, or the time that produces weeping.

But there is a time to weep, in fact grieving is quite normal and natural and right when we’ve lost someone or something important to us.  Pete Scazzero talks about this in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church.  He notes that we grieve because of losses—losing a loved one, a job, our health, a marriage, a prodigal child.  All of these are appropriate times to grieve.

What God doesn’t want us to do is to reduce the pain in our lives through distractions or addictions.  Scazzero says…

In our culture, addiction has become the most common way to deal with pain.  We watch television for hours to not feel.  We keep busy, running from one activity to another.  We work 70 hours a week, indulge in pornography, overeat, drink, take pills—anything to help us avoid the pain.  Some of us demand that someone or something (a marriage, sexual partner, an ideal family, children, an achievement, a career, or a church) take our pain away.

Jesus told his disciples

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21)

Joy and laughter will be one of the outstanding qualities of heaven, when God “wipes every tear from our eyes.”

It is healthy to laugh, when the moment is right, and it is healthy to grieve when the time comes.

Paul tells us in Romans 12 to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.”  So not only our joys and losses need appropriate responses, but the joys and losses of others.

No one is going to escape the hurts and sorrows of life, because God chose them for us.  The proof of this is seen in the life of God’s own Son, who was called a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

But Jesus also celebrated the wedding at Cana in Galilee.  He entered into the joys and laughter of that moment.

Are we to “stay on an even keel” and not feel these things, or like Jesus to enter into both the griefs and joys of life, when appropriate?

Solomon matches the times of weeping and laughing with the next phrase, “a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

This may just be expressing the same realities—weeping and laughing, with more intense, physical expressions.  Mourning in the Scriptures was attended by tearing one’s clothes and heaping ashes over one’s head.  It involved loud wailing.

Laughter can be expressed by joyous dancing.  Now, I really don’t think Solomon had in mind the kind of dancing we see today at Proms or bars.  It expresses more what David did when the Ark was delivered into Jerusalem.  It is more a spontaneous, physical expression of deep gladness.

Verse 5 is difficult to interpret.  Solomon says, “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.”  It seems out of place in the more relational/emotional expressions in vv. 4 and 5.

Some believe that this points to the need to remove stones (by gathering them) from a field in order to plant and harvest crops, while scattering stones was an act done by an enemy.  When a tribal area or nation was conquered, the conquering nation would scatter rocks around the field to sterilize it.

When Moab came against Israel in the days of Jehoshaphat, the LORD told Jehoshaphat that He would give the Moabites into their hands “and you shall attack every fortified city and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree and stop up all springs of water and ruin every good piece of land with stones” (2 Kings 3:19).  And v. 25 tells us that they did this.

On the other hand, the Midrash Qoheleth Rabbah explains a time to cast away stones as a metaphor implying the act of marital intercourse, and a time to gather stones as meaning that there is a time for refraining from this act.  This does fit the relational context we see in the rest of vv. 4 and 5.

Paul himself makes this point in 1 Corinthians 7.

2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 

In marriage our bodies belong to each other (of course, first to the Lord) and we are not to deprive one another.  However, “by agreement for a limited time” there are legitimate reasons to abstain.

Of course, these sexual relations were designed by God to take place within the boundaries of marriage (Genesis 2:24).  For all who are not married, God mandates abstinence, as affirmed in the sixth commandment, which prohibits adultery and fornication (pre-marital sex).

The parallelism between the two parts of verse 6 are evident.  With human undertakings, be sufficiently realistic about life to know that some projects may be worth pursuing for possible future benefits, while others should be dropped, no longer being worth the effort.

a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

This verse is why we have garage sales, right?  Instead of being pack rats and hoarders, we need to divest ourselves of things we no longer use or which hinder us from following the Lord’s calling.

We need to realize that changes will happen in our lives.  Instead of trying to hold onto to everything from the past, there are times we need to let go.  Some relationships may need to be let go of.  Definitely some habits and attitudes need to go—especially resentments and grudges.

Let it go!  Let it go!

There is a time to seek friends and a time to lose friends.  God is the only constant.

There is a time to keep things and a time to throw them away.  The Word of God is what we need most.

Verse 7 then says…

a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

The actions in v 7a seem to be independent of v 7b; the context changes from the domestic use of clothes to speech.

Anyone who has sewn knows that there are times, maybe many times, for ripping out stitches and starting over.  Maybe this part of verse 7 is just reminding us to use our heads at work, to apply ourselves to the right task at the right time.

One of the most salient statements of this chapter is that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

Is it fair today to say that people don’t know when to shut up?  That many people think they have a right to spew whatever is on their minds?  People use social media today to say (or generally repeat) things they haven’t thought through or jump in to a conversation without really understanding what the other person is saying.

Solomon says, there is a “time to keep silence.”  Even if everyone is begging you to state your thoughts, just keep your mouth shut.

James tells us to be “quick to hear and slow to speak.”  We need to “keep silence” so that we can listen and so that we don’t say ignorant things.

But believe me, there is “a time to speak” as well.  We do have to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to speak against injustices.  But I think silence comes first to show us the need to take time to really study the issues so that we have something worthwhile.

My father used to say, “It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Proverbs warns us about speaking rashly before we’ve given thought.

Proverbs 21:23 says “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

And Proverbs 15:28 says, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.”

Kent Hughes notes:

The true test of a man’s spirituality is not his ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.

Verse 8 then caps off this poetic understanding of time by saying that there is…

8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

In some contexts the love/hate contrast can be an expression for loving something higher.  Jacob didn’t actually hate Leah, but loved Rachel more.  Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to hate father, mother, brother, sister, wife and child, but to love Him more than them.

Here, however, it is parallel to the war/peace contrast.  There is a time to hate—to hate injustice, to hate people being persecuted or senselessly murdered, to hate innocent pre-born children being murdered.

When Abraham Lincoln first saw human beings being sold on the slave blocks in New Orleans, he felt hatred rising up in his heart.  He resolved that if he ever had the opportunity to do something about it, he wouldn’t hesitate.

It is even hard to actually love someone unless we hate the things that harm them—either things that happen to them or the things that they themselves do.

And there is a time to love, to radically love.  There is a time to put all animosity and fear and hurt aside and love.  That is what the prodigal’s father did for both the son who ran away and the son who stayed home.  He didn’t allow the personal slights and terrible insults cause hatred in his heart, but stirred up his heart to love them in their rebellion.

Unfortunately, in time of war we don’t always love or hate the right things.  But the complexities of war doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, even in the midst of war, to love and do what is good and right.

There is a time for war.  There is a time to stand up for what is right and fight for it.  But there is also a time for peace.

We won’t experience total peace until the Prince of Peace returns to establish His kingdom.

God Over All, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

God Over All, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

Well, we’ve seen the Preacher pursue meaning and satisfaction through wisdom, through wine and women, through work, but he doesn’t seem to have found it.  He did, if you remember from last week, come to the conclusion that what was good is to find joy in the little things of life, to enjoy the moment as a gift from God.

In chapter 3 Solomon will deal with the issue of time.  It is true that we have little of it, and that it is really precious when we think about it.  It is also true that sometimes we are not in control of it, but it is in control of us.

But what Solomon does in the first section of Ecclesiastes 3 is speak about the orderliness of time as God has ordained it.  This poem that I’m about to read is famous even among those who don’t know the Bible.

The folk singer Pete Seeger set it to music in the 1950s, with a tune that the Byrds popularized a decade later in their hit single “Turn, Turn, Turn.” But long before it was put to music, the Preacher’s song had struck a responsive chord in the human heart.

The Preacher begins with a summary statement: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Then, by way of explanation, he penned the following lyric:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

There is an attitude that pervades the culture in which we live… “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” (WilliamErnest Henley)… “I am my own boss”… We live in an individualistic, independent culture.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own lives.  When we succeed, we conclude that it is because of our hard work.  Interestingly enough, when we fail, we usually blame everyone else.  It is natural for us to want to feel like we are in control of our own lives.  Solomon assessed this idea of independence and informs us that it is far from reality.

I don’t believe that Solomon is expressing here the total pessimism of fatalism, that no matter what we do or choices we make, we are slaves to time.  Rather, I believe Solomon is expressing the encouragement and comfort of knowing that God is in control of time and all the events of our lives.  Without mentioning God, it is clear that God is in control of seasons and times.

Coming off the positive expression of finding joy in the little things of life at the end of chapter 2, as well the strong affirmation that Ecclesiastes 3:11 gives of God’s timeliness in ordering human events: “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” indicates that the Preacher has reached a more positive appreciation of God’s sovereignty over time and eternity.  Life is not uniformly bad but includes both positive and negative experiences.

Notice first in the summary statement in verse 1 that Solomon declares:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Zack Eswine notes that by using the word “season,” the Preacher “puts the sands of our times within the larger mountains and skies of God’s creation.”

God “made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting” (Psalm 104:19). In fact, “while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:23).

Time, therefore, offers us a repeated rhythm of beginnings and endings, connected to God’s creation.  Eswine goes on to say…

“Learning to receive rather than resist these rhythms, we draw nearer to God and his purposes for the life and lot he has given us.  In short, we enter an already established routine that we did not choose but that shapes how we live.”

“So a farmer has to learn to recognize, submit to, and plan accordingly for the seasons that rotate through their corner of land year upon year.  For example, there are times of year in which the weather and soil conditions are ripe for a tree to bear its fruit (Psalm 1:3).  There are also times of year in which no fruit will come no matter what we do (Mark 11:13).  An unwillingness to recognize and surrender to what time it is within the season that attends us can harm a farmer.” (Recovering Eden, p. 118-119).

Thus, Solomon reminds us in Proverbs…

He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame. (Proverbs 10:5)

The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (Proverbs 20:4)

Therefore, sages like this Preacher teach that the wise farmer is like the ant that “prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Prov. 6:8).  The point is this. In order to have the sustenance his family needs, the farmer has to learn how to humbly surrender to what the time requires when the time requires it.  He may think, feel, or desire otherwise, but the planting season comes and goes, and the plow won’t move without the farmer’s hand.

Times are designated for us and we learn what we need to do to tend to our lot when they arrive.

The standard Greek translation of the OT (Known as the Septuagint) uses the term kairos (time viewed as opportunity) for this passage rather than the term chronos (time considered as duration).  In the divine economy there is a suitable occasion or appropriate opportunity for everything that happens.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 81)

Solomon’s purpose is to underscore that all events are determined by God and are beyond human control (cf. 6:10; Sir 33:13–15).  Everything happens at the time determined for it by God.  This determinism is characteristically biblical (Amos 3:6; Isa 45:7).  Time is filled by an event, and hence the psalmist (31:16) can say, “my times are in your hand.”

It seems that Romans 8:28 was first envisioned by Koheleth a thousand years before it ever occurred to the Apostle Paul.   All things truly do work out for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.   God truly does make EVERYTHING beautiful in its time. 

This perspective, therefore, is far from fatalistic. The Preacher is not saying that God is arbitrary and thus there is nothing we can do about what happens. His point rather is that there is a “fitness” to what happens. According to one old commentator, Ecclesiastes 3 demonstrates

the wise, and regular, and orderly administration of One, who sees the end from the beginning, and to whom there is no unanticipated contingency; and whose omniscient eye, in the midst of what appears to us inextricable confusion, has a thorough and intuitive perception of the endlessly diversified relations and tendencies of all events, and all their circumstances, discerning throughout the whole the perfection of harmony (Ralph Wardlaw, Lectures on the Book of Ecclesiastes (1821), quoted in ibid., p. 49).

The phrase “under heaven” at the end of verse 1 is not the same as “under the sun” throughout the rest of Ecclesiastes.  Instead of picturing life without God (under the sun), “under the heaven” speaks of God’s control over creation.  Later the Preacher will say explicitly that “God is in heaven” (Eccles. 5:2).  So everything that happens in this time-bound universe is under the authority of the God who rules in heaven.

Nothing happens outside the will of God. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism , his “holy, wise, and powerful” providence governs “all his creatures, and all their actions” (A. 11).

The fourteen antitheses in vv. 2-8 present actions that are mutually exclusive; they cannot be done at the same time.

Not surprisingly, the pairs themselves seem to take in the whole sweep of human experience, from birth to death, from war to peace (which is where the poem ends), and everything in between.  In the words of H. C. Leupold, the pairs in Qoheleth’s poem “cover the widest possible range and thus practically every aspect of human life” (Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 83.)

The fact that he mentions them in a multiple of seven and begins his list with birth and death is highly significant.   “The number seven suggests the idea of completeness and the use of polar opposites–a well-known poetical device called merism–suggests totality (cf. Ps 139:2-3).”   So even though every conceivable event of life is not named in these verses from Ecclesiastes 3, the whole of life is definitely in view.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 24)

The Preacher identifies two basic kinds of seasons or times in which we tend to our lots—disquiets and delights.

For those prone to drawing the world in pastels and who see God’s purpose and nearness only in terms of smiles and victories, the Preacher boldly identifies disquieting times too.

These disquieting things traumatize human beings and, as with Job, can wreak havoc on our portion in life and our attempts to discern God’s moment-by-moment joys in our lot.

So you see here…

A time to dieA time to refrain from embracing
A time to pluck up what is plantedA time to lose
A time to killA time to cast away
A time to break downA time to tear
A time to weepA time to be silent
A time to mournA time for war

For those who want to falsely relieve the tension on the other side, who describe the world only with pain and who see the world only in terms of mud, the Preacher counters be describing delightful things. 

A time to be bornA time to embrace
A time to plantA time to seek
A time to healA time to keep
A time to build upA time to sew
A time to laughA time to speak
A time to danceA time to love
A time to gather stones togetherA time for peace

It’s as if the Preacher is saying to us, “As you travel out there in the world, under the sun, remember this about your times!  There are beginnings and endings, goods and evils, we choose and choices that we did not make but must deal with.  We age, we face realities with relationships and necessities with work.  We encounter varying moods and actions.  Such occasions await all of us.” (Recovering Eden, pp. 120-121).

Let’s consider these contrasts and what they mean.

Consider birth and death — the two most momentous experiences in life, and the two appointments that every person must keep.  Both the cradle and the deathbed follow God’s timetable.  He is the one who brings life into the world.  So David praised him by saying, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13; cf. Job 33:4).  God is also the one who appoints the time of death. Man’s “days are determined,” Job said to his Creator, “and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5–6).  The Lord of life also has sovereign power over death.

Psalm 139:16b affirms “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

“You cannot live any longer than the Lord has prescribed,” said Martin Luther, “nor die any sooner.”  The initiation, duration, and termination of our existence are all under his authority.

We should rejoice in life and “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), but we should also take death seriously and number our days to present God with a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

The second contrast is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,” which has a similar connotation as being born and dying.

Try to plant a crop in the middle of winter when snow is on the ground and it will not grow. 

Ray Stedman emphasizes:

Half of the problem of life is that we are constantly trying to run this schedule ourselves.  But God has already planned the schedule.  There is an appropriate time for everything (Is This All There is to Life?, p. 45).

Pay attention to God and His timing.

In the Old Testament, these verbs (planting and plucking) are often used to describe God’s relationship with his people.  God planted his people Israel as a fruitful vineyard (e.g., Isaiah 5:1; Jeremiah 2:21).  But when they turned against him in wild rebellion, God dug up the vine, sending his people into captivity.

He said through the prophet Isaiah, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” (Isaiah 5:5).

Notice that God is involved both in planting and uprooting.  Similarly, there is a time for building up as well as breaking down (at the end of v. 3), and God does them both.  God broke down the Tower of Babel that was built because of human pride (Genesis 11:8–9).  He also built up a house for Israel and a kingdom for David.  

In Psalm 127 David expresses the vanity of someone trying to build, or do anything, when the Lord is not building…

1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. 

Thus, the complete work of God includes both creation and devastation.

Many people prefer a one-dimensional deity.  They like to think of God giving life, but not appointing the time of death.  They would rather see God planting and building than uprooting and tearing down.

But instead of taking him by halves, we must consider his complete character.  

There is a time for him to kill as well as a time for him to heal — in other words, a time for capital punishment (see Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:3–5) as well as for skilled medical care and the healing of a nation’s soul (2 Chronicles 7:14).  This is part of God’s perfection in his sovereign dealings with the human race.  As God said in the days of Moses, “there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

By the way, this is no justification to take vengeance on to off someone who upsets you.  This is no call for road rage.  In fact, the Hebrew word here is not the same word used for “murder” in sixth commandment, where premeditation seems to be in view.

God is not either/or; he is both/and, depending on what time it is.  According to God’s schedule, there is both “a time to love, and a time to hate.”  

Again, many people like to think of God as love without considering the reality of his wrath.  But the hatred of God is one of his perfections.  It is right and good for God to oppose every wicked deed and to bring evil to judgment.

We see this in the Second Commandment, where the holy God tells us that he will hate idolatry to the third and the fourth generation, while at the same time showing love to a thousand generations of people who love him and keep his commandments (see Exodus 20:4–6).

We also see it in Proverbs, where Solomon tells us seven things that the Lord hates: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (6:17–19).

Well, we didn’t get through all of the contrasts today, so I hope you’ll join me next week.

Enjoy Life’s Simple Pleasures When All Seems So Confusing (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

July 2016 survey came out with this paradoxical title, “Job Satisfaction Hits a 10-Year High – But It’s Still Below 50%.”  Work is something God created humanity to do even before the Fall.  It is something that can give us a sense of worth and significance, that helps us provide for our families and our future.

According to Sinclair Ferguson:

Man was made to work, because the God who made him was a “working God.”  Man was made to be creative, with his mind and his hands.  Work is part of the dignity of his existence.

And David Atkinson adds:

We work essentially because we have been given gifts of creativity to use in God’s world.  Work is our human activity which corresponds to the work of God in His providential care for the whole created order .

One of the most common questions you will get is “What do you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?”  We are defined by our jobs. But according to Ecclesiastes, work is the wrong place to look for meaning in life.

Michael Carroll cites a 2015 Gallup poll that found that two-thirds of Americans come to work “disengaged.”  According to the poll, whatever passion and enthusiasm they once had fades in the face of “feeling expendable; having too much to do and not enough time to do it; constant financial pressure – the list goes on.”

Remember Lee Dorsey’s song “Working in a Coal Mine”?

The verses go like this:

Five o’clock in the mornin’
I’m already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on?

‘Course I make a little money
Haulin’ coal by the ton
But when Saturday rolls around
I’m too tired for havin’ fun.

The best the world can offer goes something like this:

Try not to look at work with such drudgery.  Try to alter your work experiences into something enjoyable and if your current position is truly awful look for a new one.  Who knows maybe your next job will be one you don’t want to leave.

Solomon explored work to see whether this God-given task would give him a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  Here is what he concluded:

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Two observations highlight this section: (1) “under the sun” occurs repeatedly in a crescendo and (2) “this also is vanity” closes each sub-section.  “Under the sun” occurs four times in the first 29 verses of the book (1:3, 9, 14; 2:11), but five times in just these six verses (2:17, 18, 19, 20, 22).  “This too is vanity” concludes verses 18–19, 20–21, 22–23, and 24–26.

Verses 12–17 contrast wisdom and folly, light and darkness, and life and death. An additional contrast between rest and labor arises in verses 18–23.  “I hated all the fruit of my labor” in verse 18 is the second half of the anaphora that starts with “I hated life” in verse 17.  Irony exists in this declaration since Solomon has already declared, “my heart was pleased because of all my labor” (v. 10).

These two expressions of hate (vv. 17-18) express a deep lament akin to that of Job or Jeremiah in Lamentations.  Ray Stedman notes the progression from depression (hating one’s life and work in vv. 17-18), because he became increasingly disgruntled when he saw the diminishing returns for all the effort he put into making life work.  Then, he was frustrated by the unfairness of working and having those who come after you enjoy the fruits of your labor.  Finally, in v. 20, he sinks into despair.

This leads many people to consider or commit suicide, people like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, or Freddy Prinz and Robin Williams.

This brother needs some Prozac!  He sounds nothing like the famous California preacher, smiling ear-to-ear in his sun-filled Crystal Cathedral while he recites his second Be-Happy Attitude: “I am really hurting, but I will bounce back.”  Rather, Solomon sounds like Job on the ashes (“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul,” Job 10:1), Jeremiah in the stocks (“Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” Jer. 20:14), and Jesus on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt. 27:46).

Clearly Solomon didn’t find meaning and satisfaction in his work and he isn’t afraid of giving us an honest assessment. 

Again, “under the sun” leaves God and a relationship with God out of the picture.  This “despair” Solomon came to is the ultimate result of leaving God out of one’s life.

One problem with work, Solomon says, is that we won’t be the ones to benefit from our labors.  No one goes to heaven with a UHaul trailer containing all his stuff.  The more he has toiled at his life’s work, the more galling is the thought of its fruits falling into the hands of others—and as likely as not, into the wrong hands (the hands of the fool).

When Solomon died, he left all of his earnings as a bequest for his oldest son, King Rehoboam.  Solomon may not have foreseen whether or not his successor would be wise, but we certainly know the truth: Rehoboam was such a fool that he lost ten-twelfths of his father’s kingdom (see 1 Kings 12).

Adam Clarke makes this point:

“Alas! Solomon, the wisest of all men, made the worst use of his wisdom, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and yet left but one son behind him, to possess his estates and his throne, and that one was the silliest of fools!”

All the labor and wisdom that Solomon has exerted will come under the mastery of another, and not himself.  Ultimately, he will be unable to experience the pleasures of all his labors.

Again, death enters the picture and changes everything.

Here is one of the great frustrations of our existence.  We are born with a longing for permanence, a deep desire to do something that will endure or to make something that will last.  Yet the under-the-sun reality is that we will spend our whole lives working to gain something we cannot keep.  It was enough to drive the Preacher to despair.

Not only will we have to leave it all behind, but work itself can be laborious and draining.

“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation.  Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:22–23).

The words Solomon uses in these verses indicates both physical and mental work.  Every occupation has its own unique demands, but no matter what kind of work we do, it always takes its toll on us. Hard work can be exhausting for the soul as well as for the body. There is “too much strain,” writes James Limburg, “without much gain.”

Work is also “sorrow” and “vexation.”  Think of all the worry that work brings.  Sometimes we are anxious about having enough work to support ourselves and our families.  At other times we have so much work that we worry about getting it all done.  It would help if we could get a full night’s sleep; instead we are awake in the night obsessing about today’s on-the-job conflict or worrying about tomorrow’s project.  “Even in the night” the weary laborer’s “heart does not rest” (Ecclesiastes 2:23; cf. 8:16).

You see, we engage in work and service because we want to make a difference.  It bothers to think that we’ve made hardly a dent in this life, and when we and those who know us are gone, even that mark will disappear.

Warren Schmidt learned this lesson in the 2002 film About Schmidt .  After retirement, as Schmidt looks back on his life as an actuary for an Omaha insurance company, he realizes that he has little or nothing to show for all his hard work.  Here is what he writes to the poor, needy child he has started to sponsor in Africa:

I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference.  But what kind of difference have I made?  What in the world is better because of me? . . . Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed.  What difference has my life made to anyone?  None that I can think of.  None at all.  Hope things are fine with you.  Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.

No wonder Solomon said back in verse 20 that he was in despair.

But in verses 24-26 Solomon speaks of something which gives us delight.  A more cheerful note breaks in on this melancholy tune.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7—12:1a), and they make the point with increasing intensity and solemnity.

The compulsive worker of vv. 22-23, overloading his days with toil and his nights with worry, has missed the simple joys that God was holding out to him.  As v. 24 points out, the very toil that tyrannized him was potentially a joyful gift of God (as joy itself is another gift in v. 24), if only he had had the grace to take it as such.

One can find joy in the simple things of life—in eating, drinking, and yes, working.

Warren Wiersbe reminds us…

“Solomon is not advocating ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’ That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith.  Rather, he is saying, ‘Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.'”

With all simplicity, the entire posture of the trusting child of God toward his Creator is found in 12:13, “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  Already at this point, and again in 5:17-19, Solomon begins to explain summarily how this childlike faith is exercised—or perhaps more accurately, how it is not exercised—in one’s day to day existence.  Whereas Solomon’s life was so terribly complicated during his period of wandering “under the sun” and away from God, the life of the believing child is amazingly simple and finds pockets of joy in the blessings that God gives.

“Having experienced the bankruptcy of our pretended autonomy,” writes Michael Eaton, “the Preacher now points to the God who occupies the heavenly realm, and to the life of faith in him” (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 73. 

Martin Luther called the end of Ecclesiastes 2 “a remarkable passage, one that explains everything preceding and following it.”  It is “the principal conclusion,” he said, “in fact the point of the whole book” (“Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:46).

Instead of trying to figure it all out, enjoy the moment.  Enjoy the gifts that God has given.

Yes, we are supposed to enjoy God above all else, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy God’s good gifts for his sake.

How should we respond to all the enigmas and confusion of life (and death)?  By trusting God with the big problems and enjoying the little gifts God gives us.

Notice three things in vv. 24-25.  First, “we should eat and drink and find enjoyment” in our work.  That is fitting and it is also possible.  Instead of regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, enjoy God’s simple gifts now.

Second, we enjoy them because these gifts are “from the hand of God.”  They are gifts of God and we should receive them with gratitude.

Third, notice how verse 25 weaves together the enjoyment one receives from God’s gifts with our relationship with Him.  He said it like this, “apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

There is a break in the dark clouds of life “under the sun” and we get here our first glimpse of the fact that joy only comes from life with God.  It is impossible without God and a growing, personal relationship with Him.

Solomon is cluing us in to the fact that although we cannot “shepherd the wind,” we have a Shepherd who is in charge of the wind, the storms and the sunshine.

Those who learn to fear God today are enabled to enjoy this world as a gift of the Creator and therefore as a channel of gratitude and worship.  The fear of God leads to the approval of God, which frees you and me to delight in today as we hope for tomorrow.

One is reminded of an old cartoon in which a publisher is pleading with Charles Dickens to change the most famous opening line in the history of the novel: “Mr. Dickens, either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times. It can’t be both.”

But of course it can be both, and often is.  We live in a world that is cursed by sin (see Genesis 3:17–19), but it is also a world that God created essentially good (see Genesis 1 — 2) and that he has visited in the flesh and is working to redeem through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.  Thus we experience joy as well as sorrow, especially if we know God in a personal and saving way.

Finally, in verse 26, Solomon reflects again on how wisdom, knowledge and joy are gifts of God towards the good, or righteous man.  Also, that sometimes what others work for benefits the righteous (unlike what he had implied in vv. 18-19).  Even this is “vanity and like trying to shepherd the wind.”

Zack Eswine concludes…

God created us.  His good gifts remain for us and our joy.  Counterfeit gifts, forged advantages, and illusory pleasures now abound like weeds bent on choking out the flowerbed.  Everything is without meaning now.  But there are these flowers that bloom, these leftover beauties that do not quit.  These small voices give witness still to the moaning world. (Recovering Eden, p. 16)