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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So in Ecclesiastes 7 Solomon begins…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What in the world is Solomon saying?

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

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

Matt McCullough suggests two clarifications:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do sad faces bring glad hearts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, listen to the sad litany in Ecclesiastes 6:

Listen to the sad words contained in Ecclesiastes 6:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Philip Ryken says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Westminster Confession of Faith begins with the question:

“What is the chief end of man?

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

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

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

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

John Piper, in his book Future Grace, writes:

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

If you desire God, you will be satisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the last question Solomon deals with the afterlife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the sad words contained in Ecclesiastes 6:

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

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

So different from the end of chapter 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. Vernon McGee tells the story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?  Assumably because he has no relationship with God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kidner points out:

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

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

Or, “this world is not my home.”

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

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

Enjoy Life! (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)

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

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

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

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

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

“Then all this strange land belongs to him?”

“No, indeed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you see life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Guzik notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Wittmer acknowledges this need for balance when he says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Rigney says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, Derek Kidner states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In verse 11 Solomon records:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, Solomon says, this is emptiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, amassing possessions can be harmful to our souls.

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

Proverbs 28:19-20 counsels us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injustice in Life (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes.  Here, Solomon is presenting to us what life is like “under the sun,” that is, perceived from a perspective that is materialistic, hedonistic and that leaves God out of the picture.  Even, as we saw last week, we can leave God out of our worship services.  When we go merely to give our own opinions and spout our own “truth,” we may be in the house of God but we’re not treating God with the honor of listening to Him.  Remember, He is in heaven; we are on earth.  Fear Him.

Now Solomon turns his attention back to injustice in society (vv. 8-9) and the vanity of money (vv. 10-17).  Then Solomon returns to the familiar theme of enjoying the simple pleasures of life (vv. 18-20).

Solomon’s admonition moves smoothly from false views of religion to false views of power and influence to false views about wealth.  Each of these things is good in themselves–Solomon will get around to saying this at the end of chapter 5.  However, as ends in themselves, they are deceitful, destructive, and even diabolical. 

Our own age has been described as an age of materialism, relativism, narcissism, and superficiality.  The manifest lack of happiness and peace, evident in so many ways, serves to confirm the wisdom in Solomon’s warnings to his son, and makes Ecclesiastes all that much more an important and timely book for our day.   (T. M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, June 3, 2011)

8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields. 10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep. 13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Our text begins with something we hear in our society today, the reality that injustice occurs through some of the sinful structures of society.  Sometimes we may place too much blame on sinful structures, when we need to look at our own hearts.  There is where sin resides.

Here Solomon deals with government’s role in perpetuating injustice.  This is not the first time Solomon addresses this issue.  Back in Ecclesiastes 3:16 he had said…

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. 

The “place of justice” and the “place of righteousness” surely refer to the court system.  Here the issue is that where one expects to find justice and righteousness, in the legal system, one does not.

In Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 Solomon had said:

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.

Here the problem is a king who “no longer knew how to take advice” and thus became foolish as he aged.  Even good kings come and go.

Both passages, indeed the whole book, encourage us not to depend upon human systems for our ultimate help.  Only God can be trusted.  He is the righteous and only trustworthy judge (3:17; 11:9; 12:14).

In our current passage there are two things which exacerbate the profusion of injustice we see throughout history: the presence of money and the multiplicity of government leaders.

An abundance of money frequently brings its possessors a greater degree of power and prestige.  And this often leads to their gaining control of more money, land, and enterprises.  Many times, wealth will even help place individuals in political offices where they can establish laws that favor their own economic advancement.  In situations like this, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 54)

The Preacher sees something that we all see — oppression and injustice at every level of society.  We see it in communism, where the state seizes control of the means of production.  But we also see it in capitalism whenever profit is pursued without regard for the well-being of other persons.  Somehow poor people always seem to get the worst end of the bargain.

Ecclesiastes tells us not to be surprised by the vanity of all this injustice.  This is not to excuse unrighteousness; it is simply being realistic about life in our fallen world.  The reality is, where man is involved, there will be selfishness and injustice.

The point of these verses seems to be that the fruits of one’s work can far too easily disappear as a result of taxes and unfair oppression by political rulers.  A hierarchy of officials is in view, possibly the frustration of bureaucracies.  By legal and illegal means, rulers squeeze money out of the populace.

In the words of one scholar, this verse is about “the frustrations of oppressive bureaucracy with its endless delays and excuses, while the poor cannot afford to wait, and justice is lost between the tiers of the hierarchy” (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 101).

Koheleth shrugs his shoulders and says, “Don’t be surprised:  it is the system and you can’t beat the system.”  It is the price you pay for bureaucracy.  The official you meet may be sympathetic, but he has got a higher official sitting on his shoulder.  He must be consulted and satisfied.  And there is a top man keeping an eye on them all.  Not only does the buck get passed up the line, but in many societies, ancient and modern, at each stage someone is out to line his own pocket.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 37)

Or perhaps the point is that each level of government takes something from the level below. We should not be surprised when people in authority abuse their power.  Eventually injustice reaches all the way down to the poor, who would probably oppress someone else if they could, but they can’t because they are at the bottom.  On this interpretation, the problem is not bureaucracy but tyranny.

Too often the struggle for power brings suffering for the underdog.  Each shows servility toward the man above and waits to take his place while lording it over those below him.  The Teacher does not say that this always happens.  On the whole he sees an advantage in a supreme ruler truly concerned for the welfare of the land.  One hopes for a wise person at the head of the country or a business or an institution–one who has both ability and humility.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1169-70)

The right way to interpret the verse partly depends on the meaning of the word for “watched” (shomer).  Occasionally this word has a negative connotation.  So it might refer to the way that different branches of government tend to be suspicious of one another.  To “watch” in this sense is to keep people under surveillance, looking for a way to take advantage of them.

But “watch” can also be taken more positively, in which case it would imply that people in government are watching out for one another, protecting each other.  This kind of cronyism creates a political machine that leaves poor and ordinary people on the outside looking in.

As David Hubbard says…

The “perversion of justice” takes place not in spite of the government officials but because of them.  They are supposed to be checking on each other to make sure that the law is upheld and the rights of the citizens guarded.  Instead, they are protecting each other, covering up for each other, which is what “watches” seems to mean here.   “Do not marvel” suggests that this was a pattern so endemic in Jewish society under foreign domination that it could virtually be taken for granted.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 136-37)

We are not exactly sure which is meant here.  There are so many kinds of injustice in society that we should never be surprised by corruption in many ways.  Unless there is “some Solomon to exhort and console him,” said Martin Luther, “government crushes the man, extinguishes him, and utterly destroys him” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:5).

Even so, it is better to have government than not have it (cf. Rom. 13:1-7).

Verse 9 seems to offer at least a partial solution to this perennial problem.  The Preacher says, “But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields” (Ecclesiastes 5:9).

This is another difficult verse to translate.  The way the English Standard Version has it, the best defense against government corruption is a godly king.  Society needs a ruler with wisdom like Solomon, someone who values economic freedom, who encourages his people to prosper by cultivating their own fields.

Many scholars read this verse more negatively, however, and translate as follows: “The profit of the land is taken by all; even the king benefits from the field” (Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes , p. 15).  On this reading, the king is not part of the solution but another part of the problem.

Matthew Henry writes:

There is profit to be got out of the earth, and it is for all; all need it; it is appointed for all; there is enough for all.  It is not only for all men, but for all the inferior creatures; the same ground brings grass for the cattle that brings herbs for the service of men.  (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1009)

However, the context seems to indicate that in this case the prosperity of the land merely serves to further the prosperity and power of the king.

Certainly this is the way most rulers operated in the ancient world, and in most centuries since: they claimed the profits of the land for themselves.  They take rather than give; they hoard rather than share.

Our experiences with injustice and corruption in this fallen world might lead us to expect it at every level of government, from the bottom to the top.  They may start out with pure motives, but power eventually corrupts.

The best governments assume from the outset that people are sinners and that therefore they need checks and balances to restrain unrighteousness.  That is the way the U. S. government was set up—with the three branches of government ideally providing checks and balances so that no one person or group of persons could rule without any accountability.

But even the best governments are far from perfect.  As long as we live on this earth, we will see people buying their way to power, using public position for personal gain, and manipulating the system for their own advantage.

David Jeremiah notes:

The failings of governments are nothing more than the failings of men.  Why should we expect government to be any different from other segments of society since all are populated and overseen by sinners?  Anyone who puts his hope in the government is surely bound to be disappointed.  That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the righteous things government does.  It just means that our ultimate hope for protection and salvation is in a God who never disappoints.  (David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 118)

But there will be no real justice until the true King comes to earth, Jesus Christ.  Only under His rule will true justice be present.

Isaiah gave his people this promise:

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

And fortunately, although the highest government official may stand against us, the ultimate Authority of the universe is for us.

There is an appeal to a higher court.  All will be set right there.  If the oppressor be high, the Higher than the highest regards us. (Ps. 10:11–1412:5Prov. 22:1213.)  He does not look on as an unconcerned spectator.  If he “keeps silence,” his forbearance does not mean forgetfulness.  He is only waiting—as in his dealings with the chosen nation or with His beloved child—his own best and fittest time for their deliverance. (Exod. 3:7–9.)

When the Roman Christians were being dragged before the courts and charged with sedition against the empire (for claiming Jesus as Lord) or charged with cannibalism (for eating Christ’s flesh), they could know that no earthly judge could ultimately condemn them.  In Romans 8 Paul says…

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

Can man bring charges?  Yes.  But the greater judge, God Himself, declares us “not guilty.”  There is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  And even if we be condemned, Jesus stands with us and prays for us.

34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

Until Christ returns to rule and reign in righteousness and justice here on earth, we can know that He sits at the right hand of God interceding for us now.

Solomon is encouraging to come out of God’s house and take a look at the world around us.  We are not to be surprised that evil and injustice are happening.  We are to have empathy towards those who are suffering under injustice.

But we are also to recognize that the ultimate answer to injustice is not a revolution against societal structures and leaders, but an appeal to the ultimate Judge of the universe.

Let me end today with David’s words in Psalm 37, when he saw the wicked prospering:

1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. 10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. 11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. 

God will work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  You can bank on it.

How We Worship, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 5:3-7)

Last week’s portion of Ecclesiastes had to do with worship, with “going into the house of God” and how we should enter and conduct ourselves in God’s house.  I think the first thing to be noted is that it was expected that one would “go to the house of God.”

With COVID and the availability of preaching on our televisions and computers, some people have opted to stay home.  It has become too easy to sit around in our pajamas, allowing the kids to play in their rooms and sip our morning coffee while we watch a sermon.

Yet we should rather have the attitude of the ancient Israelites, who even though they had to march for miles in dry, barren country and go uphill for the last few miles, would go up to Jerusalem at least three times a year and said to one another, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”

There are many reasons for attending worship services instead of staying home and watching services digitally.  First, you miss out on the fellowship of the saints.  Second, there are no opportunities for you to serve.  Third, you neglect corporate prayers and accountability.  And fourth, you miss out on the special presence of God in communion.

So I hope you will “go the house of God” of your choice this week.  Go back to your former church, or try out someplace new.

Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon says…

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. 4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake.  Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

Today we are going to focus in on vv. 3-7.  The main point of these verses seems to be that we should not make vows that we cannot keep.

 Solomon expresses the idea in verse 1 that it is better to listen when we are at church, rather than talk.  We are to “let our words be few.”  Why?  Because “God is in heaven and you are on earth.”  God is the one in charge.  He has all authority.  He is in control.

We might imagine that our business and our dreams have some weight.  All that we’re worked for or envisioned certainly seems important to us.

The Living Bible expresses the thought of verse 3 well:

“Just as being too busy gives you nightmares, so being a fool makes you a blabbermouth.”

In God’s presence, be quiet and listen.  Speaking betrays our own self-importance but merely makes us a fool.

It is hard to be wise all the time, and the more talking we do, the greater the chance that we will say something foolish, especially when we worship.  As a general rule, fools are verbose (cf. Ecclesiastes 10:14).  They rarely keep their thoughts to themselves but tend to do a lot of talking. 

Even in Proverbs Solomon warns against “many words.”  In Proverbs 10:19, he says…

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.

Moses would affirm this as it was his words spoken in anger that kept him from entering the promised land.  Measured and weighed words are wise words.  The more of them we speak – the more likely our sin nature will be expressed in them.  Thus, the greater volume of words – the more likely there will be ones spoken that are sinful. 

The word “transgression” is an interesting word to use in this proverb.  Transgression is the Hebrew word “pasha” which means a rebellion or revolt – a breaking with authority.  The idea is that of breaking with God and His perfect and absolute truth and wisdom.  Instead, we speak and within those words we depart from what He says.  In a verse that promises us prosperity, God says to Joshua to not let God’s Word depart from his mouth.  This is true when speaking with men and with God.

Wisely consider your words before you speak, rather than regret them after they are out.  My father used to tell me, “It is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

In Proverbs 17:27 Solomon presents the other side of this admonition by saying

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.

Thus, James tells us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger…”

Solomon repeats the same idea in verse 7:

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

Really, it is not the number of words that is the primary issue, but whether you give enough thought to the issue before you speak.

Whether we pray or sing or make vows, we need to think about what we are saying.

Even Jesus taught us not to keep babbling on and on like pagans but simply to go to our Father with our requests (see Matthew 6:7ff.).

Jesus Christ is our perfect example.  Although there is little said about how he listened to people, it is most likely that he did—really listen to people’s needs and hearts.  But He also is our perfect example with regard to talking.  He only spoke the truth.  Although he was bold, he never spoke rashly.

Even when he was persecuted, he did not respond in unrighteous anger.  To the very end of his life, when he was dying on the cross, every word that Jesus ever spoke was carefully chosen.

The central issue in this passage is making vows and not keeping them.  Very possibly this is in the context of stating that one would obey God’s Word, and then failing to do so.

4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.  5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 

It is not entirely inappropriate to making a vow to God.  However, they can be abused.  They can be a way of saying that you will do something and then either intentionally or not, failing to follow through.

After telling us to listen up and to watch what we say, the Preacher now tells us what to do.  He says, “Do what you say.”  Or to be more precise, he says, “Pay what you vow.”  Here Ecclesiastes is talking about one very specific kind of speech — the promises that we make before God.

Integrity is doing what you say you will do.  When you lack integrity, you might use vows to bolster your credibility, especially among those whom you have failed before.

In Biblical times people often made vows to God, usually in the context of public worship (see Leviticus 22:18–20).  We find this language in some of the psalms, like Psalm 50:14 (“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High”) or Psalm 65:1 (“Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed”).  We also see examples in stories from the Old Testament, such as the story of Hannah, who vowed to dedicate her firstborn son to the ministry of a priest (1 Samuel 1:11), or Jephthah, who rashly made a vow that cost him his daughter (Judges 11:29–40).

Here in Ecclesiastes we are not talking about a sinful vow but about a holy promise to offer God a gift or sacrifice, like the vow Asaph described in Psalm 76:11: “Make your vows to the LORD your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared.”  The point the Preacher is making here is very simple: if we make a vow, we need to be sure that we do what we say and pay God what we owe.

It is much easier to make a promise than to keep it, isn’t it?  People do this with God all the time, especially when they are bargaining with him in prayer.  They say things like, “God, if only you will forgive me just this once, I swear I will never commit that sin again,” or “I promise that as soon as I get more money, I will start giving 10 percent back to you.”

If you have ever offered a prayer like that — as many people have — then you also know how easy it is to forget what you promised!  Before we know it, we are committing that same old sin again or being just as selfish with our money as ever, in which case it would be better if we had never made God a promise at all.

Jesus told a parable about someone like that — a son who said he would do what his father said and go out to work in the fields, but never went (Matthew 21:28–31).  The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes would have called the boy a fool because he never did what he said.  

It is not just our words that we owe to God but also our works. If we tell him we will do something — if we make a commitment to ministry, for example, or if we pledge to give our money for kingdom work — then we need to do what we promised and pay what we owe.  In fact, Ecclesiastes says that we need to do it without delay.  Following through promptly on our commitments is an important part of practical godliness.

Another way to say this is, don’t play games with God!  If you promise him something, be a man or a woman of your word.  In some cases this means that it would be better for us not to promise God anything at all.  But the Bible assumes that there are times when it is appropriate for us to take spiritual vows, like the vows of covenant matrimony, for example, or the promises people make when they become members of a church.  When we are considering a vow, here is some good advice for us to follow, from the worthy old preacher Charles Bridges:

A solemn engagement advisedly made with God is a transaction needing much prayer and consideration.  It should rest on the clear warrant of God’s word.  It should concern a matter really important, suitable, and attainable.  It should be so limited, as to open a way for disentanglement under unforeseen contingencies, or altered circumstances (Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (1860; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961), p. 105).

We should fulfill our vows first because we’ve made them to God.  He deserves our faithfulness because He has kept every promise to us.

A second reason we should keep our promises to God is that it is sin not to.  Verse 6 says…

6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake.  Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 

The word for sin here is chatah.  It is the archer’s word for “missing the mark.”  While this doesn’t seem to be a highly offensive way of referring to sin, it is this very sin that condemns us before God.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)

There are many ways that our mouths can lead us into sin (just read James 3!).  But presumably what the Preacher has in mind here is the great sin of failing to keep the promises that we make to God.

We might want to call it a “mistake,” like “you’ve misunderstood me,” but in reality it is a sin to make a promise to God (really to anyone) and not keep it.

God does not take broken vows lightly.  A broken vow may incur His judgment and He may “destroy the work of your hands.”  The “much business” that swells our sense of self-importance and causes us to talk too much and be rash in making promises, may be destroyed right from under our feet.

What God wants is highlight by David as one of the characteristics of true believers allowed into God’s presence in Psalm 15.  Verse 4 says “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

There are times when we make a promise, when the skies are blue, and suddenly a storm blows in and damages our ability to make good on that promise.  The good circumstances surrounding the initial promise are no longer present when the promise is due to be fulfilled.  In fact, it is a lot harder now to fulfill that promise.  But the person that God allows in His presence fulfills that promise.  Though circumstances have changed for the worse, he does not change and fulfills his promise no matter how much pain or cost it requires now.

John Piper gives an example from the life of Amaziah, asking “where do we get the strength of character” to keep promises that have become so difficult to keep.  He writes…

There is a story in the Old Testament that gives an answer (2 Chronicles 25:5-9).  Amaziah was the king of Judah.  He was being threatened by the Edomites.  So he counted the men in his country above 20 years old, and formed an army of 300,000 men.

He also went to the northern kingdom of Israel and hired 100,000 valiant warriors.  He paid them 100 talents of silver (about 6,600 pounds of silver).

But this displeased the Lord and a man of God came to Amaziah and said, “O king, do not let the army of Israel go with you, for the Lord is not with Israel … God will bring you down before the enemy.”

You can imagine Amaziah’s first thought.  “Amaziah said to the man of God, ‘But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the troops of Israel?’”  It was a reasonable question.  It is the question we all ask when we have made a rash commitment of money and things go wrong.  Should Amaziah stand by his commitment to the warriors of Israel when he tells them to go home?  What should he do?

The answer of the man of God was simple: “The Lord has much more to give you than this.”  In other words: trust God and keep your word.  Stand by your commitment because the Lord will take care of you and see that your integrity is rewarded in ways that you could never imagine.

The issue at a moment like this is trust.  Will we trust God to act for us?  Will we take Psalm 37:5 to heart and bank on it: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in him and he will act”?  The issue is trust.  Will we trust God to come through for us in his way and in his time?

Many promises are broken because people do not trust God.  In fact they don’t even think of God.  He is not in the equation.  Money is in the equation.  Shrewdness is in the equation.  Human probabilities are in the equation.  But God is forgotten.  He is just not as real as the money we might lose.

I call you to reckon with the powerful, relevant, present, promising reality of God.  Be holy.  Be faithful.  Keep your promises.  Be people of unimpeachable integrity.  For God’s sake.  “He is a shield to those who walk in integrity” (Proverbs 2:7).

The Preacher closes this passage by describing the heart attitude that we ought to bring to everything we say and do in worship: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).

If “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (as Solomon once said; Proverbs 1:7), then this is one of the wisest verses in Ecclesiastes.  It brings together the two grand themes of this great book.  Ecclesiastes began with the vanity of vanities — the futility of life in a fallen world.  Here we see such vanity in the idle daydreams and foolish words of a churchgoer who only pretends to worship, without ever really offering his mind and his heart to God.

We also see the Preacher’s answer to life’s vanity.  At the end of Ecclesiastes, when he finally reaches the conclusion of his spiritual quest, he will say that the goal of life is the fear of God (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  The book thus moves from vanity to reverence.  God is the one whom we must revere.

Charles Bridges defined the fear of God as “the grand fundamental of godliness.”  To fear God is to recognize his might and majesty.  It is to acknowledge that he is in Heaven and we are on earth, that he is God and we are not.  It is to say, “Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?” (Psalm 89:6–7).

How We Worship, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2)

The portion of Ecclesiastes we’re going to discuss today has to do with worship.  The setting, according to verse 1, is “the house of God.”  Our main responsibility according to the Preacher is that we should be quiet and listen and be very careful with our words, particularly any vows or promises we might make to God.

Here the words of Solomon…

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. 4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake.  Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

Ray Stedman thinks the overall lesson here is “let God be God.”  That is an important approach to life, but here the focus is a little more specific.  How are we to “let God be God” in our worship?

How are we to act when we come to “the house of God”?  Have you ever thought about that?

Of all the activities in which Solomon had sought satisfaction, we Christians may wonder why Solomon has not thought much about his relationship to God, his worship.  Here he does and shows that even the act of worship can be in vain.  Even in the house of God we can act like fools.  In fact, as Zack Eswine says, the preacher is reminding us that “church people are often a motley crew.”

But like Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 said, we are made for community.  Podcasts, video sermons and chat rooms won’t really fill the need we have to be together and support one another.

Apparently both Solomon and the people he was writing to still had a desire to appear before God in his house.  He is giving them instructions on the right way to approach God.  Even though he doesn’t address heart issues (like Jesus did in Matthew 15:8), the instructions he gives reflect a right-hearted approach.

The initial instruction is to “guard your steps.”  Some versions say “Prudently walk…”  This is a call to reflect upon your approach to God, not just to run into his house without reflecting on your life and your ways, and most especially your heart condition.

Historically God has certainly taken seriously how we treat His house.  As Zack Eswine says, “Church under the sun warrants caution.  Even church that worships God as the Bible reveals him” (Recovering Eden, p. 147).

In the days of Solomon, “the house of God” would have been the temple in Jerusalem, but what he says applies to any sacred place (like the church, today) that is set aside for the worship of God.  As we go to worship, the Preacher is telling us to watch our step!  There is a right way and a wrong way to enter the courts of thanksgiving and the gates of praise.

I believe this command means that we should look to preparing ourselves before we go to worship.  “Fruitful and acceptable worship begins before it begins” says Alexander Maclaren.  In other words, much of our worship takes place before we arrive at the house of God.

R. C. Sproul, in an article entitled “Prepare Your Heart for Worship” reminds us of how God set the stage for worship back when He gave His law to Israel.

In Exodus 19 God called the people to prepare to come into His presence, or near His presence, but not actually onto the mountain where He would speak to Moses. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes.  And let them be ready for the third day.  For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’” (Ex. 19:10–11).  God wanted the people of Israel, before they came near to Him, to get ready to come near to Him, to prepare themselves for an encounter with Him.

God gave Israel two days to prepare themselves.  He required them to be consecrated and to wash their clothes.

Part of our preparation for worship ought to be reminding ourselves of who God is—the holy, sovereign Lord.  In our passage Solomon reminds them “God is in heaven and you are on earth” (v. 2) and that the appropriate attitude towards God is to “fear” Him (v. 7).  Turning again to Exodus 19, we read in verse 16:

Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

When the trumpet sounded and the moment arrived for the people of Israel to draw near to God, every person in the camp trembled.  Unfortunately, few people respond to God in worship like that anymore.  Many have forgotten how to tremble before Him, for they do not regard Him as holy.  How different their response would be if they could see Him as He revealed Himself to the Israelites:

“And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now, Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. (Ex. 19:17-18)

Over and over again God invited the people, “Come near to Me.”  But that invitation was balanced by what God said following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy.”  We are commanded by God to come into His presence—to come near to Him.  Not only that, we may come boldly into His presence, as Hebrews 4:16 makes clear.  But there is a difference between coming boldly into the presence of God and coming arrogantly.  When we come boldly into His presence and draw near to Him, we must always remember that we are to regard Him as holy.  We must hold God in utmost respect.  It is not a trivial thing to come into the presence of God.

We can prepare our hearts by confessing our sins, reconciling with others (Matthew 5:23-24), thinking big thoughts about God and reminding ourselves how great He is and how great His love is for us.

Ask yourself before you enter church this week:  Have I prepared my heart?  What do I need to do to get my heart ready to meet with God and hear His Word?

So Solomon is trying to get us to pay attention to how we come to God’s house to worship Him.

According to Derek Kidner, these instructions are for “the well-meaning person who likes a good sing and turns up cheerfully enough to church; but who listens with half an ear, and never quite gets round to what he has volunteered to do for God” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 52).

And that is what we see happening here in this passages—people talking instead of listening and people making vows they either don’t intend to keep, or don’t realize how hard it will be to keep them.  Either way, they fail to fulfill their promises to God.

The right way to approach God in worship is to come with our ears wide-open.  Instead of offering to God the “sacrifice of fools” we are to “draw near to listen.”  Our first priority at church is not to speak or sing, but to listen.

James seems to have been dealing with a similar situation when he says…

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 

I think the anger James was speaking of, in particular, is the anger someone has when they are confronted by God’s Word.  Sometimes we bow up and resist what God is trying to say to us and we argue instead of listen.  So James says we need to “be quick to hear, slow to speak.”

Although the speaking here in Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem to be defensive arguing, it is “evil” because their making promises to God also circumvents simple obedience.  The force of the end of verse 1 is that people who go in talking and not listening are not even aware of the evil they do.

“Such a man has forgotten where and who he is; above all, who God is.  The reiterated word fool(s) is scathing, for to be casual with God is an evil (1), a sin (6) and a provocation which will not go unpunished (6b)” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 53).

The Preacher uses harsh language to condemn people who fail to pay attention.  Instead of offering God a sacrifice of praise, they offer him “the sacrifice of fools.”  If they hear God’s message at all, they do not receive it by faith, and therefore they are not saved (see Hebrews 4:2).  Whatever sacrifices they offer are insincere.  Such hypocrisy is not just foolish, it is also evil.  Remember, the Preacher is talking about people in the church.  Yet they have so little understanding of who God is or what it means to worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) that they do not even realize that what they are doing is wicked.  

This statement at the end of verse 1 reminds us why some of our neighbors may never come to church.  We can do some terrible things in the garb of God.  Certainly the Pharisees did.  They drove people away from God.  The problem is not with the church, per se, but with the hearts of the people in the church.

The Preacher is admonishing us to “listen,” a word that has a double force in Hebrew, indicating that it goes beyond merely hearing to paying close attention and obeying.  In Hebrew, it is understood that if you’ve actually heard a command, you would obey it.  Obedience is not optional.

We must listen to the truth about ourselves, so that our lives can change.  Jim Dethmer, at one time a pastor in Timonium, Maryland, once said, “Our lives begin to change when we tell the truth about ourselves and receive the truth about ourselves.”

The Preacher assumes that when people go to the house of God, there will be something for them to hear.  That “something” is the Word of the living God.  The house of God is a place for the reading and the preaching of the Word of God.

Although there is nothing specifically mentioned here about “preaching” or “teaching,” that is the normal way that God communicates to us.  That is why preaching and teaching were vitally important in the apostolic church, so that the early church was “devoted to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and the apostles prioritized prayer and the teaching of God’s Word as their vital responsibilities (Acts 6:4).

Paul reminds us how important the preaching of the Word is in Romans 10:

“faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17; cf. Acts 10:33).

So, the second set of questions we need to ask ourselves as we prepare for worship are:  Am I ready to listen to the voice of God?  Is my heart open to spiritual instruction?  Are my ears attentive to the message I will hear from the Bible?

The third area of concern for worship is making false promises to God, making vows that we do not intend to keep.

The Preacher is concerned not only with how we listen, but also with how we speak.  His first exhortation was to listen up.  His second exhortation — which pertains primarily to prayer — is to watch what we say:

2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

We are rash in our words all the time.  We speak out of turn, speak before knowing what we’re talking about, or we speak in anger.  But Solomon is focused upon the rash words we speak “before God.”

Now, there is a sense in which every word we speak is “before God.”  He knows every word I’m going to speak even before it is on my tongue (Psalm 139:4) and will hold me accountable for every careless word (Matthew 12:36-37).  The ability to control our tongues is a key indicator of true spirituality, according to James (James 3:2).

But here in Ecclesiastes 5 Solomon is focusing upon words we use in worship, either in singing or praying.  It is in that context that we make vows (vv. 5-6) before God, telling him what we will do for him.  “The sacrifice of fools” in view (v. 1) is a rash vow, as is clear from what follows.

These verses are not necessarily speaking against preaching, praying or singing.  It’s not like we have to be brief in anything we say in God’s house.  Most particularly, what Solomon is dealing with are those who make promises to God—either in the words they sing or pray—but then fail to keep them.

I like the way Zack Eswine describes it:

The Preacher names something further for us too.  Foolery loves religious talk.  Fools possess a religion of the unstoppable mouth.  Foolish churchgoers have little tolerance for quiet.  They always chatter.  The Preacher describes “a fool’s voice with many words” (Eccl. 5:3).  These clueless performers multiply god-talk, as if God is impressed with what they say, and as if their salvation resides in their ability to vacuum up every floor just by pushing their speech back and forth over it.

Furthermore, foolish churchgoers assume that what they think and feel is synonymous with what God thinks and feels.  If they think it, they must say it.  If they feel it, they must receive it by means of orality.  Dreams, those day and night imaginings and goals, are always from God and never indicative of something potentially illusory within them.  These are first-draft people, living daily on unmeditated speech.  Patience is a nuisance.  Taking time to think is a waste of time.  Plans must be made.  Visions enacted.  Great things must be done quickly.  For them, haste, constant talk, and busying oneself identify the hallmarks of those who should be in church (Eccl. 5:2-3) (Recovering Eden, p. 152)

Foolish churchgoers make hasty promises, then excuses for not keeping them.  They received applause for their big speech, but when the applause is gone, there is little motivation to follow through.  The Preacher tells us to guard our steps when we come to church because if we are not careful we can be foolish, even evil.

Solomon is telling us that God knows what is going on.  He sees through our boasts and our promises.  He knows our heart.  Also, Solomon reinforces that the presence of foolish people using God’s name does not necessarily imply the absence of the genuine work of God.

“Yes, some church folks are spiritually deaf, disdaining patience, unacquainted with waiting, and arrogant regarding the importance they ascribe to their own thoughts, feelings, imaginations, and excuses.  Self-absorbed, they are clueless regarding the evil they inflict on their neighbors.  In fact, without the grace of Jesus, none of us would be rescued from such foolery.  But instead of quitting the house of God, the Preacher has something else in mind” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, pp. 153-154).

Back in verse 1 Solomon had said “when you go into the house of God,” indicating that this was to be a certain, continuous practice.  Solomon is pointing out the, almost imperceptible, change that happens to us by regular appearances in the house of God.  More time, more practice, more opportunities to learn, begin to change us.

Cultivating a regular habit, a daily rhythm or weekly rhythm, is important.  “The pattern establishes a way of life–a way that we use time to keep coming back to something that matters” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 155).

Secondly, we go in order to quiet our tongues and open our ears and hearts to the message God wants to communicate to us.  Wise churchgoing requires practicing humility.

Under it all, we need to remember that this is God’s house, and “He is in heaven and you are on earth,” illustrating his majesty and authority over us.  We dare come into God’s house and tell Him what to do!?!

This is a great verse for putting us in our place.

God is in Heaven; he is the eternal Deity who made the entire universe. We are on earth; we are mortal beings, limited in time and space. There is a vast distance between the finite and the infinite.

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. (

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.