THE TITLE: The name “Ecclesiastes” stems from the title given in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek term ekklesiastes means “preacher” and is derived from the word ekklesia meaning “assembly, church.” The Hebrew title, Qoheleth, is a rare term found only seven times in Ecclesiastes (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). It comes from the word qahal meaning “to convoke an assembly, to assemble.” Thus, it means “one who addresses an assembly, a preacher.”
THE PURPOSE: Is life really worth living? Can I possibly find peace and purpose in this life? The author of Ecclesiastes attempts to answer these questions by proving that satisfaction in life can only be found by looking beyond this world. Ecclesiastes gives an analysis of negative themes but it also develops the positive theme of overcoming the vanities of life by fearing a God who is good, just, and sovereign (12:13-14).
THE THEME: The fear of God leads to a meaningful life.
THE AUTHOR: Although the author does not specifically name himself, he does call himself “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1, 12). While not conclusive, this certainly seems to be a clue. One quick read through of Ecclesiastes leads to the recognition that the most qualified Davidic descendant to write this book is Solomon. Our author’s unrivaled wisdom (1:16), exploration of pleasure (2:1-3), impressive accomplishments (2:4-6), and unparalleled wealth (2:7-10) were fulfilled only by King Solomon. It can be safely assumed, therefore, that Solomon is the author.
THE AUDIENCE: Solomon’s exclusive use of the general word for God, Elohim (41x’s), rather than His personal name, Yahweh (“Lord”) shows that the Creator/creature relationship rather than the Redeemer/redeemed relationship is being considered. Solomon is appealing to all men everywhere.
THE TIMES: Solomon probably wrote Ecclesiastes late in his life (approximately 931 B.C.). If this is correct, the great glory that Solomon ushered in early in his reign was already beginning to fade; and the division of Israel into two kingdoms would soon take place. Ecclesiastes may express his regret for his folly and wasted time due to carnality and idolatry (1 Kings 11). Jewish tradition asserts that Solomon wrote Song of Solomon in his youthful years, Proverbs in his middle years, and Ecclesiastes in his last years. Although Jewish tradition is by no means inspired, knowing Solomon’s history, this seems to make the most sense.
KEY WORD(S) & PHRASE(S): Vanity (38x’s), under the sun (29x’s), wisdom/wise (52x’s), man (47x’s), labor (36x’s), and evil (22x’s).
CHRIST IN ECCLESIASTES: Though no Messianic predictions or types appear in this book, some vague references may be seen. The message is called “words of truth,” (12:10) given by “one Shepherd” (12:11). Christ called Himself, “the truth,” “the good shepherd” (John 10:14), and “a greater than Solomon” (Luke 11:31), coming to show the true meaning of life.
1. Declaration of futility (1:1-11)
2. Demonstration of futility (1:12-6:12)
3. Deliverance from futility (7:1-12:14)
1 This summary structure was adapted and revised from Bruce Wilkinson & Kenneth Boa, The Wilkinson & Boa Handbook (Nashville: Thomas Nelson,  2002), 168.
Have you made any New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get into shape? Many Americans have great intentions at the start of a new year. Perhaps you have already purchased a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. If so, good for you! It’s important to get in shape and be healthy. I own a recumbent bike…and I love it. I work out on it nearly every day. I cycle miles on this bike and burn calories and increase my heart rate. The cool thing is: I don’t even have to leave my house…and in the rainy Pacific Northwest, this is a blessing. But if I am honest, it is a terribly boring and tedious way to exercise. When I look down at the odometer and it says I’ve cycled five miles, I’ve actually gone nowhere. I work up a sweat and ride until I am weary, yet I know that I am going to have to hop back on the bike all over again tomorrow. It is rather depressing!
Life is like riding on a recumbent bike. It is a boring, tedious, and repetitive ride. A thoughtful person will ask, “What is the purpose in life?” Have you ever asked this question? Most people have. For some of us, this question has plagued us over the course of our lives…even our Christian lives. A few years ago, scientists at John Hopkins University surveyed nearly 8,000 college students at forty-eight universities and asked what they considered “very important” to them. What do you think these college students said? Make a lot of money? Get married? Get a job? Buy a home? I can tell you this: only 16 percent answered “making a lot of money.” But a whopping 75 percent said that their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”3 This is a staggering piece of research, isn’t it?
In this New Year, maybe you are seeking to discover a purpose and meaning to your life. If so, the book of Ecclesiastes will guide you in this endeavor…but not in the way you might think.4 Ecclesiastes has been dubbed, “the strangest book in the cannon [Bible].”5 It is an enigma for many Christians, for the bulk of this book is the memoirs of a man that is sharing his observations about what is wrong with life. In Eccl 1:1-11, we learn that life is fleeting and disappointing.
In this first section, we will come to grips with the temporary nature of life. In the first three verses, the author introduces himself and his theme. Verse 1 begins: “The words6 of the Preacher,7 the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”8 Although our author chooses not to identify himself, his titles or pen names give him away as Solomon.9 Solomon’s story is recorded for us in the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings. Although King David had many sons, it was his son Solomon who was chosen to be heir to the throne. God so favored Solomon that He appeared to him in a dream offering Solomon whatever blessing he desired. Solomon astutely asked God for wisdom to lead the nation well. He asked for wisdom instead of riches and fame. God honored Solomon’s request, granting him not just unparalleled wisdom, but wealth and recognition as well.
Solomon wrote three books of the Bible: Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. He is considered the wisest and perhaps richest man that has ever lived. He had a fleet of ships that would bring gold to him every day from far off lands. Tragically, Solomon married a foreign woman, which was forbidden by God because of the temptation to be led astray spiritually. Ironically, it was this unwise decision to gain favor from different nations by taking foreign wives that diverted Solomon’s eyes from the one true God. Scripture records that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Truly, this diverted Solomon’s devotion, so that it is often said of him that he had a divided heart.
If we were to depict Solomon as someone more modern, he might be considered a mix between Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Brad Pitt. In Ecclesiastes, what philosophical conclusions does this rich powerful genius come to after living a life with everything at his fingertips? We would expect Solomon’s sermon to be entitled “Seven Habits of Highly Successful Kings.”10 In 1:2, Solomon gives the theme of his book.
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”
This preacher fails to start his sermon with a compelling introduction. There is no attention-grabbing illustration. There is no appeal to felt needs. There is no whetting of the spiritual appetite so his audience will want to hear more. The one called “the Preacher” violates a basic preaching principle. He tells his readers up front that he has nothing to say because “all is vanity.” (Aren’t you glad you are reading this?) I regret to say that the translation “vanity” is not the best rendering of the Hebrew word hebel, for in our contemporary speech we typically connect vanity with arrogance. Unfortunately, many contemporary English versions continue to follow the Old English of the KJV. Nevertheless, there is great debate on what the term hebel means. Does it mean temporary11 or meaningless?12 It would seem that the word carries both ideas and even a few others. Hebel is an inexhaustible term.13 It can mean “vapor, deceitful, futile,14 and fleeting.”15 It points to what is without real substance, value, permanence, or significance.16 In other words, no person or pursuit in and of itself will bring lasting satisfaction. Everything is temporal. It may be that the modern Christian reader can do no better than to import hebel into his or her vocabulary, much as has been done with agape and to a lesser extent koinonia. Everything is hebel and therefore of no lasting value.
In this one verse, Solomon uses the word hebel five times. Hebel appears thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes and only thirty-five other times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The term is used in every chapter of Ecclesiastes with the exception of chapter ten. It also brackets the book (see 12:8). Furthermore, Solomon uses a literary device to bring out a supreme emphasis: “vapor of vapors—the thinnest of vapors.” The Old Testament authors spoke of the “holy of holies,” “heaven of heavens,” and “servant of servants.”17 Solomon says that everything in life falls under this definition. Whatever hebel is, the world is full of it! The word “all” in the context of what he proceeds to describe refers to all human endeavors (cf. 1:3).18 This verse is blunt; it is intended to shock the reader out of complacency. It is designed to rock the boat, shake the tree, and pull the chain.19
If the above explanation is a bit much for you, let me explain hebel another way. [Take a balloon out of my pocket.] This blue balloon represents your life at birth. I will now provide a visual of your lifespan. [Blow up the balloon.] At the end of your life, this is what happens. [Release the inflated balloon and let it sputter into the crowd.]
Life is not totally meaningless or without any ultimate purpose. The point that Solomon is making is that you live for seventy or eighty years and then you’re gone. Materially speaking, life is short and then you die. You will lose everything you own to the next generation. Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance. Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal.20
Solomon follows up his theme with a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer. In 1:3 he asks, “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” The answer is there is no advantage. Work seems pointless because it is quickly passing. Furthermore, it is monotonous. The key phrase in Ecclesiastes, “under the sun,” is used twenty-nine times.21 This phrase is the key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is writing from his viewpoint—ground level, horizontal, limited, and human. In these words we have a description of what life is like if the heavens are shut off from man. If a bowl were placed over the earth, masking the heavens (i.e., the spiritual world from which God speaks and acts), what would life be like? Given this perspective, what would be the view from earth? This is the experiment which is in focus in the book of Ecclesiastes.22
Moms understand the truth of this verse. Whether it is washing dishes, cleaning sinks, scouring toilets, or washing floors, there is always more to be done. Not to mention, chasing toddlers, mediating fights between siblings, grocery shopping, and playing taxi in your minivan. My wife informs me that preparing creative, well-balanced meals that everyone is ready to devour without complaining is her most challenging responsibility, on top of everything else she is responsible for.
Men can relate to this verse as well. After working and commuting fifty hours a week, you then come home to more work: mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, changing the oil in the car, doing the taxes, and playing with the kids. All of these responsibilities come at you day-in and day-out. There is no rest for the righteous (or for you either).
This past Christmas, Lori and I purchased three hamsters for our children. From my perspective as a human being, these hamsters don’t do a whole lot. They sleep during the day and play at night, while we sleep. They eat, drink, and make messes. Then it dawned on me: If a hamster viewed most of our lives, he or she would see a vicious cycle as well. We get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed, and repeat the cycle all over again, until retirement. Our lives are short and boring. It makes one want to say, “Stop the insanity!”
To clarify his meaning and to support his contention in 1:3, Solomon cites four examples from nature. In 1:4-7, Solomon answers his own question: There is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because everyone is caught in the unending and unalterable cycles of life.23
These verses profoundly impress certain sensations on the reader. First, there is a sense of the indifference of the universe to our presence. It was here before we came, and it will be here, unchanged, after we have gone. Second, however, the universe, like us, is trapped in a cycle of monotonous and meaningless motion. It is forever moving, but it accomplishes nothing. Finally, a sense of loneliness and abandonment pervades the text. No one has described this better than the apostle Paul. The creation is “subjected to frustration,” in “bondage to decay,” and awaiting “freedom” (Rom 8:19-21).26
[Solomon has argued that life is fleeting. In 1:8-11, he shares a second problem with life.]
In these next four verses, Solomon demonstrates that everything and everyone in life will ultimately disappoint us. There are three basic reasons for this: There is no satisfaction under the sun, there is nothing new under the sun, and no one is remembered under the sun.
Nothing new under the sun (1:9-10). Solomon writes, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.” The French have a proverb that goes: “The more things change, the more they turn out to be the same.” While there are new inventions, and God does do new things, Solomon is talking about how man can never be satisfied “under the sun.” Solomon is saying that there is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because one’s work will never result in anything new, but only that which has been. If it appears that something new happens from time to time, it is only because our memories are short.28 Seriously, most of us don’t know history, so we keep thinking we’re coming up with new ideas!29 We often mistake movement with progress. We think we are making progress but in reality we are driving around a cul-de-sac and wondering why the neighborhoods all look the same.
Some people track their year, not on the basis of the months or seasons but on sports: baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and NASCAR in the spring. Where do you go when you conclude that there is nothing truly meaningful in life? Back to the stadium, where at least there are games with consistent rules, rewards, and penalties.30
There is good news and bad news in 1:11. The good news is for those people who worry about what others think about them. In the end, no one will think about you at all. The bad news is for those who seek some type of temporal immortality. In the end, no one will think about you at all.31
When you die, there will be a funeral. You may have twenty-five or 2,000 people attend. But do you know what they’ll do after the funeral? They will catch lunch and have a great old time together. Then they will hurry back to work because somebody was covering for them. That night they’ll go home to their families, watch a sitcom rerun, and forget all about your memorial by morning. Are you ready for that?32 Mark Twain was right, “The world will lament you for an hour and forget you forever.”33
Perhaps this makes you feel empty. That’s exactly what Solomon is seeking to accomplish. He wants you to feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness, for emptiness is designed to draw us to God. We must learn to value emptiness. As we acknowledge our sense of meaninglessness, we are motivated to search for more. We must learn to value emptiness for its positive potential. As an empty cup invites water or a vacant room invites entrance, so an empty heart can lead us to search for God-given ways to fill it.34
By putting on biblical binoculars, we can see how Solomon concludes his book. In 12:13-14 he writes,
“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” These two verses and the message of the Bible tell us that the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. The good news is that God has not left us “under the sun.” If you have believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, life is not “under the sun” but rather in the SON. He brings purpose, peace, and significance. He gives you the opportunity to live an abundant life (John 10:10). However, the Bible is clear that apart from the Lord Jesus life under the sun is terribly disappointing. It is cursed! It is disjointed! It is upside down! It is in bondage to decay! It is meaningless! It needs to be liberated!35 This will happen when we leave this life and go and be with Jesus.
In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. This means we must “fear God and obey His commandments…for God will bring every act into judgment.” The question of 1:3 is the most important question of the book: “What advantage36 does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” Solomon’s concern is what do humans have “left over” after life is over. What difference do the activities of this life have in the next life? Does anything last beyond the grave? Can we make certain (beyond the shadow of a doubt…beyond the shadow of death) that what we do in this life has some lasting value? This should be the key question of our lives (and of the lives of all other people). What can we do to guarantee a return on our life-investment?37 The answer that Solomon gives is to fear God and obey His commandments. When we do this, our fleeting lives begin to count for eternity. The disappointments that we experience in this life are bearable. When everything around us seems meaningless and monotonous, Christ—the Meaning in life, gives us meaning. When we are weary from the wearisome nature of life, Christ says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). When we can’t get no satisfaction under the sun, we can find satisfaction in the Son. When we can’t find anything new, we remember that Christ has created a new covenant, given the new birth, and new life. When we feel like no one will ever remember us, we can take confidence in the truth that God remembers us, and one day we can overcome this world and receive a new name that Christ Himself will give to us. In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son.
Job 1:21; 20:20-22
1. In what ways would I agree with Solomon that life “under the sun” is empty (1:2-3)? What is an area in my life that has recently seemed meaningless or futile? In what ways do I sense that people around me live with a sense of despair and hopelessness? How can I minister to them and provide hope?
2. What “advantage” does my work have (1:3)? How does my work seem to be an exercise in futility? Why then do I allow work to consume me? How can I cultivate a healthy work mindset?
3. How does the fleeting nature of life humble me (1:4)? Read Psalm 39:4-6; 90:9-12; and James 4:13-17. Why does the Bible emphasize the brevity of life? What will it take for me to maximize my life and the allotted days that God has given me? What would I like God to accomplish in and through me in 2008?
4. What does the monotony of the universe teach me about my life (1:5-7)? Why does God frequently bring up the world He has created to illustrate His Word? What can I learn from the way God has created the universe?
5. Solomon says life does not satisfy because nothing is new and no one is remembered (1:8-11). When have I found this to be true in my own life? How has this made me feel? Since I know what the Bible teaches about the temporary nature of satisfaction and recognition, how should I then live?
2 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
3 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), xv.
4 I strongly recommend the following journal articles: Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160:638 (April-June 2003): 159-73; 160:639 (July-September 2003): 283-304.
5 William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), vii, 10.
6 As is the case with other OT wisdom literature, the author of Ecclesiastes identified the book as his own. Solomon’s use of “words” (see also Prov 1:6; 22:17; 24:23) means something like an “official collection of teachings.” Sages like Agur and Lemuel (Prov 30:1; 31:1) and prophets like Amos (1:1) and Jeremiah (1:1) had sets of their proverbs and oracles so labeled by those who collected and preserved them for posterity sake. How the author and other wise teachers went about their work is described with some detail in the conclusion (12:9-10).
7 Solomon also begins Proverbs by quickly stating his theme in 1:7: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
8 The title of this book in the Hebrew text is all of 1:1. The Septuagint translation (a third century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew text) gave it the name “Ekklesiastes” from which the English title is a transliteration. This word is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word qohelet that the NASB translated “Preacher” in 1:1. The Hebrew word designates a leader who speaks before an assembly of people.
9 Even those that disagree with Solomonic authorship must acknowledge that his life is being examined.
10 Charlie Bing: “Wisdom for the Real World” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2): unpublished sermon notes.
11 Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 3-4.
12 Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 60-63.
13 See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 47-48; Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993); Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grad Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 156-157.
14 See NET and HSB.
15 See Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 56. See NIV and NLT. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 61-63. The word can have the meaning “breath” or “vapor” (Job 7:16; Prov 21:6; Isa 57:13), but in most cases, the word means “meaningless.”
17 Similarly, the NT authors called Jesus “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords.”
18 The phrase “is vanity” is the most popular one in Ecclesiastes (1:14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7, 8, 16; 5:7, 10; 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8.17). It forms an inclusio with 12:8 surrounding the evidence that Solomon offered to prove that all is vanity.
20 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 11.
21 “Under the sun,” used 29 times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the OT, simply means “on the earth,” that is, in terms of human existence (1:9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 5, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5; cf. 1:13; 2:3; 3:1). The phrase shows that the writer’s perspective was universal, not limited to his own people and land. Longman points out that this phrase is similar to “under heaven” (Exod 17:14; Deut 7:24; 19:14; Eccl 2:3; 3:1) and “on earth” (Eccl 5:2; 7:20; 8:14, 16; 11:2). Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 65.
23 Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” See www.infoplease.com/cig/theories-universe/scientific-origins-universe.html.
24 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 13.
25 Solomon is particularly interested in the wind. He refers to it once in the Song of Solomon, six times in Proverbs, and fourteen times in Ecclesiastes. Jesus also spoke of the wind when he was sharing the gospel with Nicodemus (John 3:8).
26 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,
27 This last phrase is a loose quotation of Prov 27:20: “As Death and Destruction are never satisfied, so the eyes of a person are never satisfied” (NET).
28 Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 781.
29 David Fairchild, “Futility Under The Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11):
30 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 12.
31 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 29.
32 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 12.
33 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 5.
34 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 15. Schmidt quotes David Augsburger who states, “Emptiness is at the center of our humanness. To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and Creator. To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love. To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self. Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.” See David Augsburger, When Enough Is Enough (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1984), 52.
35 Ardel B. Caneday, “Qoheleth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?” Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986): 55.
36 The noun yithron (“advantage, profit, excess”) appears only in the book of Ecclesiastes in the following passages: Eccl 1:3; 2:11, 13 [twice]; 3:9; 5:8, 15; 7:12; 10:10, 11. Profit is always on our minds (e.g., profit margins profit shares). God has wired us this way; however, He wants us to look toward eternal profit.
37 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
What would it take to make you happy? What if you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Donald Trump? Would this make you happy? What if you had the success of Oprah or Martha Stewart? Do you think you could be happy? What if you had the brains of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking? Do you think you could be happy? Let me guess. Your answer is, “I don’t know, but I’d sure like to give it a try.”
A few people have been able to possess wealth, success, and intelligence just as I described. Solomon, the third king of Israel, was one of them. In some ways he had everything. He had a thousand wives and concubines, enormous wealth, international respect, and unparalleled wisdom. What he didn’t always have, however, was a reason for living. He didn’t always have happiness. He fits the pattern of the highly gifted, extremely ambitious person who climbs the ladder of success—only to contemplate jumping off once he’s reached the top.39
In the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes chapter one, Solomon examined three broad categories in his search for the key to life: human history, physical nature, and human nature. Now in 1:12-2:26, he narrows his search to his own personal experience.40 In a sense he takes us on his own spiritual sojourn as he searches for satisfaction in life. In the memoirs that follow Solomon informs us that he sought satisfaction in four broad categories, but wound up empty-handed.
In this first section, Solomon states that even the best education is powerless against life’s enigmas. In 1:12-15, he begins seeking wisdom externally: “I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind41 to seek and explore42 by wisdom43 concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God44 has given to the sons of men45 to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works [intellectual] which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.46 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Solomon begins by giving his credentials once again (1:12; cf. 1:1). Why does he reiterate his position as king? To remind us that he is a man who had everything this world could offer. If anyone could have found satisfaction in life, it was Solomon. After citing his credentials, Solomon states that he purposely set out to find the ultimate principles behind everything in the universe (1:13). I assume he studied literature and art, psychology and sociology, astronomy and physics, and theology and philosophy.47 But he found his search to be a “grievous task,” for there are so many things that yield no answers, even when assaulted by the highest of human intelligence. Everywhere Solomon turned with his knowledge and wisdom he found hebel (1:14).48 Things that were crooked to his mind he couldn’t straighten out; and there were many gaps he couldn’t fill in (1:15).49
In 1:16-18, Solomon transitions to seeking wisdom internally.50 He writes, “I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized51 that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” If Solomon were alive today, he would say, “You’ve heard of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Morons!”52 Solomon’s point in 1:16 is that he is the wisest man that has ever lived, yet he still couldn’t find satisfaction in education and learning. At first glance, it is natural to assume that Solomon’s quest led him to observe insanity. However, in Scripture both “madness” and “folly” imply moral perversity rather than mental oddity.53 Having felt that he had mastered intellectual pursuits, Solomon decides he will seek to understand the pursuit of pleasure. These verses anticipate 2:1-11, where the actual pursuit of physical pleasure is described, but here he means that he examined the life of pleasure from a philosophical standpoint. Yet, in the end, he finds that much wisdom leads to “much grief” and “increasing pain.” Every pursuit for wisdom and knowledge under the sun is like “striving after wind.”
Have you ever tried to catch the wind in your hands? It is impossible. In fact, it is a ridiculously futile waste of time. It can’t be done! This is exactly Solomon’s point. Wisdom “under the sun” fails to satisfy the soul. This observation actually demonstrates Solomon’s wisdom, for the more knowledge we acquire the more we realize just how ignorant we are. As Socrates himself said, “I am the wisest of all Greeks, because I of all men know that I know nothing.” The more we are educated in current events, the more serious the world’s problems appear. The better we understand the vastness of our universe, the more insignificant we become. In other words, increasing knowledge often compounds our sense of futility.54 T.S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”55
[So the pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas. Now we will see that…]
In this section, Solomon describes his grand experiment into pleasure and its total failure. He followed the philosophy of the advertising slogan, “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get.” He grabbed for all the pleasures of life. But after some time he realized that the “gusto” was less fulfilling and did not taste so great.56 In the first eight verses, he speaks of at least six kinds of pleasure he tried in his effort to find satisfaction.
The classic movie Citizen Kane illustrates this point. In the film, you watch the character Charles Foster accrue an incredible amount of wealth, until it ultimately destroys him. As Foster is progressively tainted by his desire for wealth, power, and pleasure, there is a recurring shot of a fireplace in his home. As the wealth grows and becomes more destructive, the fireplace gets bigger and bigger until in the last few frames, it is the largest thing in the movie. The fireplace is always burning and consuming. By the end of the movie, the fireplace takes up almost an entire wall of his house. Foster’s life is nothing but this raging inferno that never, ever is consumed until he dies. And when he dies, all his possessions are burned. The viewer watches his entire life go up in smoke. The only difference between Foster and most of us is that his stuff produced a lot of smoke. He had a big trash bag. We will have little-bitty trash bags. But in the end, it all goes up in smoke.62
Solomon summarizes his pursuit of pleasure with his own analysis in 2:9-11: “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.63 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” I cannot help but think here of Jesus’ question in Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Solomon would answer, “Nothing. It profits him nothing at all.” Solomon says, “It won’t work. You can earn more, spend more, collect more, drink more, eat more, sin more, you name it, but none of those things will put meaning into life.”
[So far we have seen that the pursuit of knowledge is futile and the pursuit of pleasure is futile. Now Solomon will tell us that…]
It’s been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. That’s what Solomon is doing here. Solomon has already talked about wisdom and knowledge at the end of chapter one, so perhaps he is going back to the subject rather than pursuing a new topic, but I prefer to think that his previous discussion dealt primarily with the acquiring of knowledge or education, while now he is more concerned with the application of wisdom and knowledge. Solomon shares two important principles.
Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we are thankful to God for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries. Yet, there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry, diseased, and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.64 We spend millions on AIDS awareness, yet people who “know better” regularly engage in promiscuous sex. We have more consultants and experts in business than ever before, yet bankruptcies continually occur. We have learned about fat grams and exercise routines, yet we are the most obese nation in the world. Books on parenting and marriage appear regularly, yet families seem to struggle as never before.65
[Solomon has pursued education, pleasure, and wisdom. His personal experience takes him on one more excursion, but the result is the same.]
Now a significant number of people will agree with me on this point, for all of us at one time or another lose interest in our work and wonder if it’s even worth it. But let’s see the reasons behind Solomon’s analysis. Again, Solomon shares two critical principles.
The disappointing reality is that significance cannot be found in work. Some time ago, an aspiring television star was given a shot at a network series. He went to the NBC studios, saw his name on a parking space, found the crew treating him like royalty, and admired the star on his dressing room door. The series pilot was shot in five days, but television executives rejected it. When the young actor left, no one said goodbye, the name was gone from his parking space, and his dressing room was locked. “All the success was like smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t get a handle on it; like cotton candy, once it was in my mouth it was gone.” Our culture is a cotton-candy world—sugary and seductive—a pink swirl of empty calories. Today you might be the “flavor of the month,” with Hollywood or Wall Street at your command. Tomorrow your pockets may be as empty as your soul.66 If you don’t believe me, ask Britney Spears.
Solomon, the Preacher, has taken us on his search for satisfaction through the pursuit of education, pleasure, wisdom, and work. Each effort he has judged to be futile. None of these areas, when pursued for their own sake, are able to provide meaning and satisfaction in life. So he concludes this entire section in 2:24-26 with these words: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give67 to one who is good in God’s sight.68 This too is vanity and striving after wind.”69 At first glance, 2:24 almost appears that the Preacher has flipped and is telling us that since life is hebel, the best thing you can do is to gorge yourself, get drunk, and tell yourself that your labor is worthwhile, even though you know it isn’t. But that is a serious misunderstanding of his point. Solomon is saying that eating and drinking and laboring, while devoid of ultimate meaning in and of themselves, are infused with meaning and purpose and happiness and satisfaction, when done in accord with God’s regulations and with His blessing. What spoils these activities is our greediness to get out of them more than they can give or our tendency to do them to excess. Nevertheless, God longs for us to enjoy these activities. He wants us to enjoy a good meal with friends. He encourages us to drink in moderation. He expects us to have a positive attitude toward work, for “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”70
God also wants us to realize that He will grant three gifts to those who please him: wisdom, knowledge, and joy. But to the sinner who persists in trying to remake God’s world, there is also an outcome: “a chasing after the wind.” This reference to the chasing of wind is to the frustrating activity in which the sinner works night and day to heap things up only to find in the end that he must, and as a matter of fact does, turn them over to the one who pleases God.71 This again demonstrates the utter futility and transient nature of life.
Picture your hands out in front of you, cupped together, palms up. In your open hands are all the things He has entrusted to you—money, cars, a home, furniture, everything. All of these are His gifts (Jas 1:17). We are the stewards, and faithfulness is our charge. That means our hands must never close over the gifts, but remain open so that He may use them as required—and refill our hands.72
The main conclusion of Solomon’s search is: Get satisfaction from God’s gifts. Satisfaction is a gift from God, just like salvation. When we can take our education, our pleasure, our wisdom, and our work as gifts from God, then our search has found its goal. And all the good things that God has in store for us are ours. Death will take none of that satisfaction.73
1 Corinthians 3:18-23
1. What role does education play in my life? How important is learning to me? Can I balance knowledge and humility? How have I seen wisdom to be a “grievous” task (1:13, 18)? Will I be a lifelong learner that is willing to recognize the limitations of wisdom and education?
2. Do I love God more than I love the pleasures of life (2:1-11)? Are the pleasures God gives me reminders to me of my gracious and loving heavenly Father? Are my pleasures the catalysts by which I serve Him more effectively and enjoy Him more fully?
3. What is my perspective on the death of people (2:14-16)? Have I fully acknowledged the transient nature of my own life? How has this mindset affected my pursuit of pleasure and management of time?
4. What is my philosophy of work (2:18-23)? Have I looked to work to satisfy my desires for significance? If so, how can I begin to recognize that this is not the purpose of work? Read Colossians 3:22-25.
5. Have I learned to enjoy life (2:24-26)? Have I stopped to “smell the roses” along the way? How can I slow down my pace of life and enjoy God’s good gifts? Who can I enjoy a good meal with? How can we celebrate the goodness of God in our lives?
38 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
39 M.R. De Haan II, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: RBC, 1983), 9-10.
40 The careful reader will notice that Solomon begins speaking in the first person in Eccl 1:12. The emphasis is upon his personal experience.
41 The phrase “I set my mind” (1:13, 17) is what is known as an inclusion (i.e., the bracketing off of a passage by beginning and ending a section with the same or similar word or phrase). The use of this particular inclusion again emphasizes Solomon’s personal experience.
42 The word translated “seek” (darash) means to penetrate to the very core of a matter, while the word translated “explore” (tur) means to investigate a subject on all sides. In his quest for satisfaction, Solomon did his homework—he did a thorough job.
43 “Wisdom” (chokmah) in this context does not refer to living life with God in view. It means using human intelligence (“under the sun”) as an instrument to ferret out truth and significance.
44 Ecclesiastes does not use the divine title Yahweh, God’s covenantal name (Exod 3:14-15). Instead, the book uses the word Elohim for God twenty-eight times, a word that stresses His sovereignty over all creation. The wisdom writers often use Elohim when they wish to speak of universal truth instead of truths that are peculiar to God’s covenantal relationship to Israel. Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 782.
45 Most of our Bibles have translated the Hebrew word adam (“man”) as “men.” The phrase then reads: “It is a grievous task which God has given the sons of men to be afflicted with.” Yet, Solomon seems to be alluding to Adam and the effects of the Fall. Therefore, the idea is: On account of Adam’s fall, the sons of Adam seek and explore in pursuit of the meaning of life, but to no avail.
46 “Striving after wind” is only used in the book of Ecclesiastes. Seven of its nine occurrences follow hebel (“vanity,” futile,” etc.) statements (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). Constable suggests, “This phrase ‘striving after wind’ occurs frequently in Eccl 1:12-6:9 and is a structural marker that indicates the end of a subsection of Solomon’s thought (cf. 1:17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 10.
47 A universal theme in wisdom and philosophic writings is that the life of wisdom is the highest of all callings. In Plato the task of the philosopher is the purest of all. Here, however, it is a grievous task (we could translate the phrase as a “lousy job”). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
48 In Rom 1:21-32, Paul says that man’s thoughts are foolish, futile, dark, immoral, and perverted.
49 Solomon observes that it is God who has “afflicted” us with this task. This is significant because the “affliction” that we experience should be the very thing that drives us to God, the ultimate goal of living.
50 The external and internal divisions come from Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
51 The phrase “I realized” and its synonyms occur frequently in Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 2:1, 3, 14, 15; 3:17, 18, 22; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1).
52 This is a great line from Vicini in the classic movie Princess Bride.
53 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
54 Michael P. Andrus, “The Search for Satisfaction” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26): unpublished sermon notes.
55 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23.
56 Kurt De Haan, “Why in the World am I Here?” (Grand Rapids: RBC, 1987), 8.
57 Identifying Eccl 1:3; 2:2; and 6:8a as verses that present questions that “are among the most [sic] important questions in the book,” Miller observes: “Toil, pleasure, wisdom. In one sense, each of these is a rhetorical question: by implication they make a statement that there is no surplus for toil, that pleasure accomplishes nothing, and that the wise have no advantage over the fool. Yet, their form as questions raises the possibility of an answer and Qoheleth finally does supply one in each case: he eventually allows for value in toil (2:24; 3:13; 4:9; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]; 11:6); he urges that to seek pleasure accomplishes little (2:1), although life without it is worthless (2:24; 3:12-13; 4:8; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]), and it is particularly to be found in companionship (4:8-9; 9:9); he says finally that though wisdom has limitations, it preserves life (7:11-12; 9:16-18; 10:10). By delaying his answers, Qoheleth raises tension and uncertainty for the reader.” Douglas B. Miller, “What the Preacher Forgot: The Rhetoric of Ecclesiastes,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 229.
58 Prov 14:13 states, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.”
59 One of the reasons we love gardens is because man was first made in one. It was the only place on earth that was completed, then Adam and mankind was given the task of cultivating the rest. Gardens are an echo of home.
60 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.
61 Tim A. Krell, “Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life”: unpublished paper (3/1/1996).
62 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 31-32.
63 Davis writes, “In 1:3, the author directs his readers’ attention to what is arguably the key question of the book: ‘What advantage does man have in all his work which he does [works] under the sun?’ (NASB; emphasis, mine). In our current section of the book, the author begins to address the amal (noun -- labor, toil, trouble; verb -- to work, to labor, to toil) concern of that question. Throughout the book (though significantly more frequently in the first half of the book [30x] than in the second half [5x]), the author utilizes the various grammatical forms of amal (labor) 35 times, 15 (i.e., nearly 43%) of which he uses to drive the thought of the latter portion of chapter 2 (vv. 10[2x], 11[2x], 18[2x], 19[2x], 20[2x], 21[2x], 22[2x], 24). Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
64 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23-24.
65 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 35-36.
66 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 39.
67 The word “give” (nathan) appears in Ecclesiastes with God as its subject eleven times.
68 Solomon is not speaking of believers and unbelievers. It is speaking of those who please God or are displeasing to Him. Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 26-27.
69 This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7-12:1a).
70 Preaching Today citation: John Ruskin, Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 4.
71 Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 293.
72 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 41.
73 Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 37.
Timing is everything. You have probably heard this phrase many times. There is a great deal of truth in that statement. The difference between a good joke and a bad one is a person’s sense of timing. An appropriate pause makes a joke…an inappropriate pause can kill the same joke. Timing is essential when dealing with people. You don’t ask for a raise when business is not going well or when things are tense around the office. You don’t try to correct someone who feels threatened by you. You don’t ask for a favor when someone is under a lot of stress or angry. Timing is important in cooking. The juicy hamburger on the grill is raw meat if cooked for too little time and a clump of charcoal if it is cooked too long. Timing is important in medicine. If you catch a problem early you will be able to treat it more effectively. Your timing is important in taking medication. If you take your medicine as directed it will be helpful. If you skip doses it loses its effectiveness. If you take extra doses it can be deadly. Timing is important in finance. When you invest in a particular stock and when you sell the particular stock will make the difference between whether you make money or lose it. Knowing when to borrow and when not to borrow is the key to financial independence. Timing is important in your spiritual life as well. It is critical to live your life with an acute awareness of God’s timing for your life.75
In Eccl 3:1-15, Solomon tells us that life is really a matter of timing, for timing is everything. This should be evident to us. You and I probably have a dozen clocks and four or five calendars in our homes. Many of us carry a timepiece attached to our wrist, and time indicators are built into our cell phones, computer screens, and PDAs.76 Time and timing is everything. If timing is everything, how should we live? In the following fifteen verses, we will discover four concise exhortations on how to live if timing is everything.
In this first section, Solomon makes a persuasive case for the brevity of life. As is customary in Ecclesiastes, Solomon begins this section by stating a thesis (3:1). He then proceeds to illustrate and demonstrate his thesis (3:2-8). Solomon’s thesis is this: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven” (3:1). The key word in this section is “time,” and it is used thirty times in 3:1-8. There are three insights worth noting in 3:1. First, Solomon is not going to be making judgments on the topics that follow in 3:2-8, he is merely recording the events that occur “under heaven.” Second, Solomon builds his argument upon the word “appointed.”77 The events of our lives do not randomly happen by chance; God has a purpose behind them. Third, Solomon uses an unusual Hebrew word translated “event.” This word conveys the idea of “delight.”78 By using the word “delight” instead of one of the standard nouns, Solomon implies that there is a good sense that one experiences by fitting into a given event at the right time. In other words, there is a sense of success based on appropriate timing—even if the activity, by its nature, is not delightful.79 Again, timing is everything.
After stating his thesis (3:1), Solomon launches into his poem in 3:2-8. In these seven verses, he makes twenty-eight statements—fourteen negative statements and fourteen positive ones.80 The first pair of contrasts (birth/death) sets the parameters for the events that follow. In 3:2 Solomon writes, “A time to give birth and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.” God appoints both our birthday and the day of our funeral. He knows exactly when they will occur; He always has. There are absolutely no surprises with God. He is so sovereign that there is nothing and no one who can take your life before your God-ordained days are finished. Solomon says this is even true of the plant world: the term of life is fixed.81 Verse 2 certainly starts with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty over time, yet Solomon seems to be saying above all that the time is short. In fact, time is almost up. We are born into this world, and we rather quickly race toward the grave and die. Every eight seconds somebody dies and every three seconds someone is born. Life can seem like a revolving door. The same is true in the plant world. The various seasons of planting and harvest have been set by God. He sets the boundaries and times of the seasons and they come and go so quickly. Timing is everything.
The next two sets present destructive and creative activities: kill/heal, and tear down/build up. In 3:3 Solomon puts it like this: “A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.” “To kill” does not mean to commit murder. Hebrew has a special word for murder that is clearly seen in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not kill.”82 Here, “kill” involves capital punishment or destroying enemies in a just war. Solomon is not making any moral judgments in this context, but since it has come up in our text, I will. The reason why this is necessary is because of the value God places on human life. Human life is so important to God that when a life is taken that life must be avenged, because humans are made in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Fortunately, there is also a time “to heal,” or literally, “to sew,” “to heal a wound.” There is also a time “to tear down” old walls, relationships, or even, metaphorically, nations (Jer 18:7, 9), as well as a time “to build up.”83 The second line may refer to the demolition of houses and their construction; it may also be figurative. In the Old Testament, the words for tearing down and building up are often used with reference to the destruction and building up of a human life.84 In that case, the first line of 3:3 is expanded by the second.
The next two pairs in 3:4 express human emotions: weep/laugh and mourn/dance. Solomon writes, “A time to weep and a time to laugh;85 A time to mourn and a time to dance.” Both sorrow and joy are part of life; without one the other is unrecognizable.86 We will encounter negative and positive emotions and experiences throughout this life. This is to be expected. Change occurs constantly. One moment we will be on the mountain peak, the next moment we will be in the valley. During these tumultuous times, it is important for us to both grieve and rejoice. When loved ones pass from this life, I always urge family and friends to grieve. God intends human beings to grieve. Jesus grieved when Lazarus passed and when He Himself was preparing to die, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Grieving is healthy for the human psyche and brings about closure. It is also important for us to laugh and rejoice. It has been said, “If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you grow old.”87 I love this! I’ve always told our church staff that the most important trait in ministry is a sense of humor. (Godliness and character are assumed.) If you don’t have a sense of humor in life and ministry, you will never get out of bed in the morning. You will just hit snooze on your alarm clock and pull the sheets over your head. Eventually, you will wither and die.
Is it possible for you and me to worship God in these differing seasons? Is it possible to find joy in the midst of your sickness, to find dependency upon Him in the midst of your failing health? Is it possible to be close to God in ever-changing circumstances? If you only thank God in seasons of great health and prosperity you will not be thanking God very much, because those seasons ebb and flow like the tide. We are to find joy in the midst of each season and in the transition between them.
In 3:5 we come to a very bizarre set of lines. Solomon writes, “A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.” The phrase “throw stones” is a reference to sexual intercourse, while the phrase “gather stones” means to refrain from sex.88 In the Old Testament, abstinence from sexual intercourse took place in times of mourning.89 Corresponding to this meaning is the mention in the next line of the embrace, which is used as a toned down expression for the same thing. This interpretation ensures the parallelism between all of the lines of the poem.90 And it could indeed be said in this area that timing is everything. Did you hear that, men?
The next two pairs deal with the nature of possessions. Solomon writes, “A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away” (3:6). The latter phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!91 The thought here deals with the fleeting nature of our possessions. We buy clothes and we take clothes to the Goodwill. We buy a new car and sell our clunker. We search for various misplaced possessions and then accept that we will never find them in the mess of our closet or garage.
The next pair seems to suggest a time for mourning and a time to cease mourning. Verse 7 reads, “A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak.”92 In the Old Testament, when people mourned the death of a loved one they tore their clothing and kept silent.93 When the period of mourning was over, ordinary conversations of the day could continue.94 This reminds us that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to talk. It has been well said, “In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.”95 As Christians, we need to be wise in the use of our tongues. It is too easy to say too many careless things. Many of my heroes are those that use their speech wisely. For the past seven years, Lori and I have observed a woman in our congregation by the name of Myra Yu. Myra picks and chooses her words wisely. She is an extremely intelligent woman and possesses a great deal of wisdom, yet she is careful not to speak too much. As a result, her words are golden. Many of us need to learn from people who recognize that timing is everything.
The final lines of this poem occur in 3:8. This set of verses has to do with affections and their consequences. Solomon writes, “A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.” At first glance, these verses can be hard to understand. We all know that there is a time to love. We should be all about love. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). But Solomon also says there is a time to hate. Even Jesus hated. He hated sin. He hated its mastery over human souls. He hated the wake of its destruction. We need to learn how to hate that which is evil without hating the people who are evil. We may hate the act of abortion, but we have compassion on both the aborted and the aborting. We may hate the ravages of alcohol, but we love those who struggle with alcoholism, and we want to do whatever we can to help them.96
The internal parallelism of the previous six verses is in this final line of 3:8. This is probably due to a desire to end on a positive note—peace rather than war. Ironically, this line of Scripture has become rather famous, thanks to a 1965 hippie song penned* by the rock group, The Byrds. This passage is still very important in spite of the words “turn, turn, turn,” which have haunted me all week like a tack hammer to my frontal lobe. With the addition of just six words to the end of Eccl 3:1-8, The Byrds were able to transform these verses into an anti-Vietnam, pro-peace song. Following the last couplet of “a time for war and a time for peace,” The Byrds added the little phrase, “I swear it’s not too late.” Thus, did Ecclesiastes enter the mainstream consciousness of the counter-culture.
*[Editor's Note: As thankfully brought to our attention by a user, this song was sung by the Byrds--but indeed this song/these additions were penned by Pete Seeger.]
Unfortunately, The Byrds were wrong in their insistence upon peace. As much as we may want peace, there will not be peace until the Prince of Peace brings peace to this world. And ironically, when Jesus does bring peace it will be after the blood bath that is described in Rev 19:11-21. Now I will not weigh in on the various wars that have taken place or are taking place since that is not the point of this passage. However, I will say this: When tyranny runs roughshod over the rights of mankind, war is necessary. We often sit in quiet places when we worship. We worship without fear of infringement from law because someone has fought for the right to be heard and to speak freely, to stand, and if necessary, die for what one believes to be the truth. We love the fact that America has been “the home of the brave and the land of the free” for more than 200 years, yet we often don’t appreciate the need to at times be at war. God is a warrior and war is a part of the Bible. To suggest that war is never to be condoned is a misunderstanding of the Bible. Again, timing is everything. Now I don’t like war. I’m not pro-war. I don’t know anyone who is, but I can’t imagine protesting or complaining while American soldiers are serving our country. My heart is to honor our soldiers and respect the decisions that have been made by our government. It is a mistake to assume that if we were in office all would be well. Nothing could be further from the truth. There will always be war and peace.
[Solomon has urged us to expect change. Now he will encourage us to…]
Solomon writes, “What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?” This section ends in 3:9 with the same rhetorical question posed in 1:3 (cf. 2:11). This rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, expecting a negative answer: “Mankind gains nothing from his toil!” Any profit or advantage that man might gain from his toil is nullified by his ignorance of divine providence.97 We say to ourselves, “Why should I work so hard when it’s all going to be destroyed? Why get married when you just end up fighting and hurting one another? Why have a child and deal with the stress and disappointment?”98 These are all good questions. Actor Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”99
Solomon continues in 3:10-11 with these words: “I have seen the task which God100 has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate101 in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”102 The word “everything” in 3:11 resumes “everything” in 3:1. The point of 3:11 is that God makes everything, even events that occur through human agency, happen in its proper time. Yet, the tension of this verse is that we don’t always understand His purposes. We ask questions like, “Why was I born this way? Why did my father treat me that way? Why did you take my friend? Why am I missing out on this blessing?” Our problem is that we focus our attention on the wrong thing. We see the fuzzy, ugly cocoon; God plans and sets in motion the butterfly. We see the painful, awful process; He is producing the value of the product. We see today; He is working on forever. We get caught up in the wrapping; He focuses on the gift—the substance down inside. We look at the external; He emphasizes the internal. He makes everything beautiful in its time, including your loss, your hospital experience, your failures, your brokenness, your battles, your fragmented dreams, your lost romance, your heartache, your illness. Yes, even your terminal illness…whatever you’re going through. He makes it beautiful in its time. Without Him, life is purposeless and profitless, miserable and meaningless. With Him, it will ultimately make sense.103
Solomon also says that God has set eternity into the hearts of mankind. Knowing that gives purpose to life. The phrase “eternity in their hearts” means God has placed a big question mark deep in every man’s soul. We should be asking the question: What is the meaning of life? God intended it that way. Anthropological evidence suggests that every culture has a God-given, innate sense of the eternal—that this world is not all there is.104
If you ever get the opportunity to visit Egypt and its tombs and pyramids, study what was required to construct some of those monuments. Some studies revealed that it required the efforts of one hundred thousand workers forty years to build just one of the great pyramids. As you tour the area there, you can’t help but ask why. Why so much effort? Why would somebody put that amount of emphasis on a tomb—on the afterlife? The answer is, the Egyptians understood full well that they would spend a lot more time in the afterlife than they would spend in this life. Granted, some of their conceptions of what would happen in the afterlife were a little skewed. But the point is, they understood to the core of their being that the afterlife was a whole lot more important than this life, and so they prepared for the afterlife during this life. God had placed eternity in their hearts.105
Since all has been predetermined by God, there is purpose and meaning in the events of life. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created being, but by God alone made known through Jesus Christ.” The truth is: we have an eternal itch. We all long to know the eternal significance of what we do. The Bible says this can only be found in Christ.
[Solomon has said we need to expect change and accept limitations. Now he will tell us to…]
Solomon says one of the greatest responses to this life is to make the most of it. Not in a hedonistic sense, but in a spiritual sense. We enjoy life by including God in all that we do and being filled with joy. Solomon declares, “I know106 that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.” Biblical faith is a call to joy. Ben Franklin once said, “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.” Timing is everything. Let’s face it, life is stressful. It is filled with all kinds of pressures from people, projects, pursuits, and more. For example, I could get a cold or flu this week. On my way home from church, a car could cross the yellow line and hit me head-on. I may learn that I have some form of cancer. So it makes sense to enjoy this life. Eat ice cream, watch a movie, play in the rain with your kids, take your wife out to a nice dinner. Yes, be a wise steward. There’s no need to be extravagant, but make the most of your days on this earth.
[Not only must we enjoy life, Solomon also says that we must…]
4. Fear God (3:14-15). Solomon closes this passage with these words: “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15 That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.” God’s work is permanent and complete. Everything that He does is awe-inspiring. This is why Solomon says that we should fear God (lit. “fear before Him”). The fear of God is one of the key themes in Ecclesiastes and throughout the Bible. The phrases “fear God” or “fear of the Lord” appear over one hundred times in the Bible. The concept does not refer to paralyzing terror, but rather a commitment of the total being to trust and believing the living God.107 I have been to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the Swiss Alps. On each of these occasions when I have gazed on God’s majestic handiwork, I felt small, fearful, and awestruck. God wants us to stand in awe of who He is and all that He is. When we do so, we will understand just how temporary this life is in contrast with an eternal God.
I talked with Don Prozora this past Friday. Don is a tremendous man of God. One year ago, Don’s son committed suicide. This year his father is dying. On top of this, Don learned that he has tumors on his liver and kidneys. Tomorrow he is having a CT scan to determine if these tumors are benign or cancerous. Yet, through these ordeals, Don continues to trust God. He told me, whatever the outcome he has complete confidence in God. He said, “I feel like I can’t lose.” Don and his wife, Pirjo, have submitted their entire lives to the Lordship of Christ because He has become their all in all—their everything! They understand what it means to fear God.
Today, will you fear God? Will you entrust yourself to Him? Will you depend upon Him for everything? Will you acknowledge that His timing is everything to you?
2 Corinthians 4:7-8
1. How does it make me feel to know that God is ultimately in charge of all the events in my life (3:1)? Am I comforted by this reality? If so, how does this truth comfort me? Do I find God’s sovereignty a bit disconcerting? How so?
2. Do I agree with Solomon that God’s plan includes a time for “everything” (3:2-8)—even war, death, mourning, and hate? Why or why not? When have I experienced the ebb and flow of life? Do I find this constant, pendulum-like description of life comforting or discouraging? Why? Am I able to “take life in stride” or do I have extreme highs and lows, dependent upon my circumstances? If the latter, what can I do to be more spiritually consistent?
3. How have I seen 3:11 proven true in my life and the lives of others? Can I sense a longing for the eternal in myself and others? How does this flesh itself out? How has God made “everything appropriate in its time” in my life? What expressions of this have I seen recently?
4. When I think of the gifts God has given me, what or who immediately comes to mind (3:12)? How often do I express my gratitude to God for His many gifts? How frequently do I acknowledge certain people as God’s gifts to me?
5. Do I honestly fear God (3:14-15)? How does this manifest itself in my life? Read Ecclesiastes 5:7; 8:12-13; 12:13-14; Proverbs 1:7; 2 Corinthians 5:9-11; 7:1; Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:13-17; and 1 John 4:13-21. What biblical insights from these passages cause me to have a greater sense of awe and fear of God?
74 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
76 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 48.
77 The Hebrew word zeman (“appointed”) is used in Ezra 10:14; Neh 2:6; 10:35; 13:31; and Esther 9:27, 31.
78 E.g., 1 Sam 15:22; 18:25; Job 21:21; 22:3; 48:38; Ps 1:2; Prov 31:13; Eccl 5:3; 12:1, 10; Hos 8:8; Mal 1:10; 3:12.
79 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
80 Glenn writes, “The fact that Solomon utilized polar opposites in a multiple of seven and began his list with birth and death is highly significant. The number seven suggests the idea of completeness and the use of polar opposites—a well known poetic device called merism—suggests totality (cf. Ps. 139:2-3).” Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 983.
81 In the OT, Solomon also metaphorically applies the language of planting and uprooting to nations (e.g., Jer 18:7; Zeph 2:4).
82 See Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17.
83 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 63-64.
84 See Gen 16:2; Job 16:14.
85 Elsewhere Solomon writes, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22).
86 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
87 This quote is attributed to Ed Howe in Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 90.
88 Today’s English Version (TEV) renders this line “the time for making love and a time for not making love.”
89 See 2 Sam 12:24; 1 Chron 7:21-23.
90 Although this seems like a logical parallel, it should be noted that none of the other items in the list seem to be figurative. This is a problem with the above interpretation, yet it should also be kept in mind that we are dealing with poetry. Therefore, it should not come as a shock that a euphemism might appear. And since each of the other fourteen pairs are parallel, why would this set be any different? Those that disagree with this view prefer the following possibilities: casting stones to make a field unworkable (as in warfare), or clearing a field of stones to prepare the soil, or the use of stones as counters to record the number of sheep in a flock.
91 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990), Electronic ed.
92 The father in Proverbs continually admonishes his children to pay attention to words of wisdom and instruction (2:1; 3:1; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 7:1, 24), but he also warns against talking too much (17:27) and becoming ensnared by one’s words (6:2). The more we talk, the more likely we are to sin (10:19); the fire of gossip dies out as soon as the talk ceases (26:20). In short, words can contain life or death; it is up to us to choose them carefully (18:21). There is no greater wisdom than knowing the seasons of the tongue—when it is time to speak and when it is time to keep silent (26:4-5). Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.
93 See Gen 37:29; 2 Sam 1:11; 13:31; Ezra 9:5; Lev 10:1-3; 2 Kgs 2:3, 5; Job 2:13.
94 J.A. Loader, “The Grip of Time” in Reflecting with Solomon: Selected Studies on the Book of Ecclesiastes ed. Roy B. Zuck, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 260.
95 Preaching Today citation: Meister Eckhart in Directions for the Contemplative Life. Christianity Today, Vol. 34, no. 3.
96 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.
97 See NET Study Notes.
98 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 47.
99 Preaching Today citation: “Quotable Quotes,” Readers Digest (March 2006); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, KY.
100 Davis notes, “The title Elohim (God) occurs a total of 40 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes (i.e., 8.93 times per 1,000 words). Compared to the remainder of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Ecclesiastes ranks number six in frequency of occurrence.” Only Deuteronomy, Jonah, Psalms, 2 Chronicles, and Ezra have more occurrences. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
101 The word yapheh means “beautiful” when referring to something physical, like human appearance (Gen 39:6), but when referring to actions and states like those listed in 3:1-8 the word “appropriate” conveys the sense more clearly. Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 111 n. 6.
102 Kaiser writes, “This quest is a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive, because man is made in the image of God to appreciate the beauty of creation (on an aesthetic level); to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world (on an academic and philosophical level); and to discern its purpose and destiny (on a theological level)…Man has an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in his experience can be integrated to make a whole.” Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 66. Elsewhere Kaiser states that Eccl 3:11 “summarizes the teacher’s whole argument, and in context (3:10-15) it serves equally well as a summary for the entire wisdom corpus.” Walter C. Kaiser, “Integrating Wisdom Theology into Old Testament Theology: Ecclesiastes 3:10-15,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 206.
103 Charles R. Swindoll, Solomon, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1994), 88.
105 Preaching Today citation: Bill Hybels, “Your Ever After: Heaven,” Preaching Today, Tape 34.
106 “I know” does not introduce a conclusion; rather, it begins a premise, an additional piece of information, or a concession. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
107 Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 67-68.
On June 17, 1966, two men strode into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, NJ and shot three people to death. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a celebrated boxer, and an acquaintance, were falsely charged and wrongly convicted of the murders in a highly publicized and racially charged trial. The fiercely outspoken boxer maintained his claim of innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer. After serving nineteen years, Carter was released. Nevertheless, Carter lost the most productive years of his life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty. He was deprived of his career, his wife, and seeing his children grow up.109
This real-life account makes me angry. I hate injustice. I hate knowing that innocent men and women will go to prison. I hate knowing that 85% of convicted murderers will be released. I hate knowing that children are being forced into prostitution and slavery. I hate abortion. I hate knowing that women are being physically and verbally abused. I hate racism. I hate age discrimination. I hate death. Yet, tragically, our world is full of those things that you and I hate. Therefore, we need to talk about the unpopular topics of death, injustice, hopelessness, and judgment because they stare us in the face every day of our lives.
In Eccl 3:16-4:3,110 Solomon cries out for justice, yet his cry seems to fall on deaf ears. Therefore, he concludes life is harsh and then you die. Now you may be thinking, “Oh, great, another encouraging sermon from Pastor Bah Humbug! Maybe I should stop reading before I collapse in depression and pessimism.” I freely acknowledge that no pastor in his right mind would choose to preach this text. Yet, in this passage I actually find meaning and motivation to live life. In these ten verses, Solomon shares two important observations (cf. 1:3) with us that will help us to cope with injustice and oppression.
In these seven verses, Solomon tells us that life’s injustices should break us and then shape us so that we are humble before God and others.111 In 3:16 he writes, “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” The word “furthermore” connects this passage with 3:1-15, where Solomon stated that God’s timing is everything. “Furthermore” also marks a change in emphasis, for now Solomon is going to air a few grievances. Solomon’s observations are rather discouraging. He declares that life “under the sun” is filled with “wickedness.” The “place of justice” refers to the law courts.112 However, there Solomon sees injustice and oppression where the rights of the poor ought to be protected. Instead, the innocent are declared guilty and the guilty innocent. This is an application of Murphy’s Law: Although we may long for justice and righteousness, we inevitably end up with wickedness instead.
This hard truth is important for us to come to grips with. Sometimes bad guys win and good guys suffer. Johnny Christian doesn’t always score the touchdown and Paul Pagan doesn’t always fumble the ball. That’s a fact. Do you have a problem with that? Would you rather have a “perfect” universe? Wouldn’t it be great if, after a driver ran you off the road, his car would break down five minutes later? Or if someone cheated you in business, he would go bankrupt the next month? Or if someone got angry and yelled at you, her teeth would fall out that night? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It certainly would be from a fleshly perspective, but unfortunately you’d have to live in that same “perfect” universe. So if you gossiped about someone, your tongue would turn green. Every time you lusted after another person, more of your hair would fall out. Every time you spent money on something you didn’t need to, the food in your refrigerator would rot overnight. Would you want to live in a world like that? None of us want that kind of instant justice from God. Yet, God’s patience with sin is an incredible blessing. If God was not so patient all of us would come under His immediate judgment.113 We would be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, God grants us His mercy and grace. This should lead us to want to be more merciful and gracious with others, to have compassion for those who are in the grips of sin and under the influence of the curse. If these reminders don’t work, then remind yourself that life is harsh and then you die.
While wickedness seems to have run the score up on righteousness 105-0, ultimately, God gets His due because He is in control of the affairs of men. In 3:17 Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there” (The word “there” is shorthand for God’s eternal judgment.114) Solomon informs us that God will judge. Sometimes He judges people in this life; sometimes He does not. But payday is coming someday! Wrong will not go unpunished, and right will not go unrewarded, forever. In the end, Jesus Christ will judge all people. Psalm 37:12-13 tells us, “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming” (NIV). God gets the last laugh. While we may not see it in time, justice will be carried out in eternity.
Unfortunately, that is not always very satisfying. We hate it when someone “gets away with it.” Solomon tells us that in truth, nobody gets away with it. Paul Harvey illustrated this point when he told about a man named Gary Tindle who was charged with robbery. While standing in the California courtroom of Judge Armando Rodriguez, Tindle asked permission to go to the bathroom. He was escorted upstairs to the bathroom and the door was guarded while he was inside. But Tindle, determined to escape, climbed up the plumbing, opened a panel on the ceiling, and started slithering through the crawl space, heading south. He had traveled some thirty feet when the ceiling panels broke under him, and he dropped to the floor—right back in Judge Rodriguez’s courtroom! When the guilty seem to have escaped judgment, it’s only for a short moment and a short crawl. They will find themselves before the Judge once again in time. Sooner or later, the wheels of God righteousness will right every wrong, balance every scale, and correct every injustice in the world.115
Turning his eyes back toward earth, Solomon imparts a principle: Injustice reminds us that we are mortal. In 3:18-20 he writes, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’ For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” As you can imagine, these verses have been used to support the evolutionary theory. While some of us may think, look, and act like monkeys, that is not the point of these verses. Solomon is not making a blanket comparison between humans and animals. He is merely saying that we both die.116 A better translation of the word “tested” is “make clear.”117 The point is that God allows human injustice to exist in the world in order to make it clear to us that we are just like animals in the sense that we are going to die. Life is harsh and then you die.
When I was growing up, I had a soft spot for animals. My whole family has always loved animals. In fact, the year I was born, my dad was voted the best amateur nature photographer in the world.118 Consequently, I could never get myself to hunt and kill any animal. Now, don’t get me wrong or call me late for dinner; I am glad to eat the meat of hunters, I just don’t want to be the one to pull the trigger. Believe it or not, while I was growing up I also had a soft spot for insects. I found it hard to kill bugs with my bare hands and feet, so I just sucked them up with our vacuum cleaner. I recognize that I am walking contradiction: I am particularly fond of football, boxing, and mixed marital arts, yet I don’t want to kill any insects. Go figure! But I will tell you this: Today, whenever I accidentally squish an insect, I can’t help but think that my life is every bit as fragile. Life is harsh and then you die.
In 3:21 Solomon postulates, “Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Solomon here considers this question empirically, with only his senses and his three-pound brain to guide him. And with the brute facts before him and us, we can’t prove a thing. At best, it is a guess. If we are only to consider what we can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell, your guess is as good as mine. From Solomon’s perspective, maybe all dogs do go to heaven and all people go to be meat on a shishkabob. Who knows? Everyone has their own guess when left to their own finite brains.119
The point of 3:21 is this: Most of us behave as though we had endless time and close our eyes to the fact of death. God wants us to face that fact (3:18). Even in our Christian service of God there may be the underlying idea that there is still plenty of time tomorrow, and what we fail to do here can be made up in our service in paradise. So Solomon challenges those who live as though they are immortal and are never to be accountable to God (3:16-17).120
So “who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Who can know the truth about the resurrection? The answer is “No one can!” No one can “under heaven” or “under the sun.” So who knows? GOD KNOWS...So the question then becomes: do you know the one who knows? Today, the God of heaven and earth offers you a relationship with Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you desire such a relationship, trust in Christ as your Savior from sin.
Just to summarize: You may be successful, powerful, wealthy, talented, and personable, and when all is said and done, you’re going to die just like Bootsie the dog or Gilbert the hamster—whatever pet your kids talked you into that you currently regret. Okay, so who cares what you do, because in the end there’s no difference between you and the animal. You both die. Remember, life is harsh and then you die.
Fortunately, in the closing verse of chapter 3, Solomon encourages us to enjoy life in spite of the world’s injustice. He observes, “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him [his death]?” (3:22) I love this verse. I’ve checked the Hebrew word “happy” in several lexicons. I’ve considered its Aramaic cognate and I’ve discovered that “happy” literally means “happy.” God wants us to be happy in the midst of this miserable life. The word “lot” or “portion” conveys the sense of the limitations of life. The portion is like an inherited plot of land that one has to work. Toil is inevitable, it is part of the heritage of your portion, but from that very same lot you may find enjoyment.121 Your lot in life may be a small family, a small-fry job, and a small-time neighborhood, yet when you are gone there is no portion to enjoy. So you need to enjoy your life NOW, despite its injustices and trials.
In 2004, The Nation magazine profiled an Alabama woman who works as a nursing assistant at a nursing home for $700 a month. She works the night shift, emptying bedpans, tending the bedridden, mopping floors, and doing other tasks beyond her job description because the place is understaffed. She can’t afford a car, so she pays someone else to drive her thirteen miles to work. If that person doesn’t show up, she walks. Better to walk than to call in sick and probably lose her job, she says. She lives alone with her three children in a shack. There is no phone. The toilet is in the floor. The heater is broken. But she likes her work. She likes to make the residents smile.122
This story convicts me. It breaks me and humbles me to dust! It motivates me to ensure that I enjoy my life. After all, I have nothing to complain about.
[Solomon has informed us that injustice should move us to humility. Now, in 4:1-3, he gives us another one of his favorite buckets of cold water…oppression.]
Men and women are oppressed in every area of life: business, marriage, family, relationships, and church. Wherever there is power, there is the potential and likelihood that it will be abused. In 4:1-3 Solomon observes, “Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” These three verses are depressing. Nevertheless, we must recognize that Solomon is using hyperbole (i.e., a deliberate exaggeration) to shake us to the core of our being. He uses forms of the word “oppressed” three times in three verses. He is deeply grieved by what he observes. This is the reason for his extreme language. These verses are not a call to suicide or abortion. They are simply the journal of a man expressing pain and devastation over all of the oppression in the world. Life is harsh and then you die. These words reverberate through my mind and soul.
Many of us as Americans have no idea of what it really means to be oppressed. We can be sure though, that in other parts of the world many know all too well what Solomon is talking about. Nowhere is heartbreaking oppression more evident than in the communist nation of North Korea. An estimated 100,000 Christians are being imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the ruthless Kim Jung II.124 There are 400,000 Christians in North Korea and one out of four are prison camps. This is brutal!
This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Lori and I spent some time explaining to our kids who Dr. King was and why he was murdered. After sharing his life with our children, I was filled with frustration over the unrighteousness of mankind. To think that Americans have oppressed people over skin color is one of the most asinine things I have ever heard. It is an atrocity! What is worse is that many Christians were and are guilty of prejudicial behavior. Into the late 1960s, some Bible colleges and seminaries would not allow African-Americans to attend their schools. Today, various African-Americans are some of the greatest preachers on this planet.
Not only is there persecution and racism, there is also poverty. The Anchor Bible Dictionary catalogs six categories of the poor in the Old Testament and counts the number of references for each:
In our country, 35% of individuals make less than $25,000. This is also true for 28% of households.126 Many people work for a low wage and no benefits. And many of these people aren’t lazy. They are just working jobs that do not pay well. They may also have recovered from some difficult circumstances along the way. There are many recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, prisoners, abuse victims, etc. Many of these people are trying to start over; however, it is not an easy road.
The above realities can prove to be overwhelming. Our temptation is to say, “Where do we even start?” It seems like we can’t make a dent into these oppressive problems. Indeed, it certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it? Even so, we are not responsible to do away with all the oppression of the world—only God can do that. We are merely responsible to do our little part.
One of my favorite cartoons shows two turtles in the midst of a conversation. One says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other turtle says, “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”127
Ten years ago, a friend of mine and a former Green Beret gave me his beret pin, which in Latin reads:
De Oppresso Liber. This phrase means, “To free the oppressed.” Since he gave me this pin, I have kept it in my office to the left of my computer. I want to be reminded of the responsibility I bear.
Yes, we live in a world of injustice and oppression. Maybe you have been a victim of some form of abuse. Perhaps you were raped, molested, or fired from your job. Some of greatest movements have come from those who were cheated or treated unfairly. Candy Lightner founded MADD in 1980 after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. Cindy Lamb whose daughter, Laura, became the nation’s youngest quadriplegic at the hands of a drunk driver soon joined Candy in her crusade to save lives. Consequently, thousands of lives have been saved.128 John Walsh and his wife, Revé, suffered the most horrendous loss that any parents could endure: the abduction and murder of their beautiful six-year-old son, Adam. Since that day in 1981, the founder of Americas Most Wanted has dedicated himself to fighting on behalf of children and all crime victims. As a result, thousands of victims have found justice, and dozens of abducted children have been safely brought home.129
You can make a difference in at least one person’s life. You can have a testimony, a ministry, an influence, and an impact. One of our church’s mission strategies is to “lead the world.” We do that by loving one lost person at a time toward Christ. Will you allow the injustices of this world to move you to action? Will you say, “Enough is enough! I want to make a difference in one person’s life?”
In the movie The Last Emperor, the young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a life of luxury with 1,000 servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten. In Christianity, Jesus reversed that ancient pattern: when the servants erred, the King was punished.130
Do you realize that the most oppressed and unjustly persecuted person that has ever lived is Jesus Christ? Yet, through His death, He has provided for us eternal life. It is a free gift and it is your’s for the taking. Believe in Christ today as your only way to heaven. He was oppressed for you; He suffered unjustly for you. Do not let His death be in vain for you.
1. When have I most recently seen a travesty of justice (3:16)? How did I deal with this observation or experience? When others face injustice how do I provide comfort? When I have been asked to explain the reasons for injustice, how do I respond?
2. What role(s) does God’s judgment play in injustice and wickedness (3:17)? Read 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Revelation 20:11-15. How does God’s judgment comfort or encourage me?
3. How do the injustices of life remind me of my own human limitations and frailties (3:18-21)? What effect does this have on my present life?
4. How have I sought to be continually “happy” in my various activities (3:22)? What is my attitude regarding my marriage, family, job, and church? How does my attitude affect my contentment and enjoyment of life?
5. When have I been oppressed (4:1-3)? How have I observed others being oppressed, either directly or indirectly? How have I responded when I have seen others oppressed?
108 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
109 James S. Hirsch, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 310.
110 This precise passage breakdown is adopted by R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1995), 222-223.
111 Solomon returns to the theme of injustice in Eccl 5:8f.; 8:10-15; 9:13-16; 10:5-7; 10:16f.
112 Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 125.
113 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 61.
114 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
See also the NET: “I thought to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous and the wicked; for there is an appropriate time for every activity, and there is a time of judgment for every deed.’” See also Ps 14:5; Zeph 1:14.
115 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 76.
116 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 127.
117 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 85-86. See also the NET: “I also thought to myself, ‘It is for the sake of people, so God can clearly show them that they are like animals.’”
118 The PSA (Photographic Society of America) awarded my dad, Richard Krell, for having the most pictures accepted for exhibition in international nature exhibitions throughout the world.
119 David Fairchild, “Justice Departed” (Eccl 3:16-4:3).
120 J. Stafford. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” in Psalms-Song of Songs vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), Electronic ed.
121 Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 176.
122 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005). 65.
123 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 35.
124 Open Doors, “North Korean Christians Being Tortured by the Thousands,” 24 January 2008.
125 Quoted in Waddle, Against The Grain, 64.
126 “Household Income in the United States”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States.
127 Peter John Kreeft quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 50.
128 “The History of MADD”: http://www.madd.org/About-us/About-us/History.aspx.
130 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),
Karoshi is a Japanese word which means “death from overwork.” The syndrome is now so common in Japan that it claims as many as 30,000 victims each year. Its increase has caused such concern that since 1990, the Japanese government has been forced to provide restitution to karoshi widows.132 As Americans, we hear this and we think to ourselves, “That’s crazy! What are these poor people thinking?” Yet, all the while many of us are working ourselves to death, either literally or figuratively. The question is, “Why?” What is driving us to work so hard and so long? Our natural temptation may be to claim, “I work hard and long to glorify God.” This may be true, but I would suggest for most of us it is only partially true. If the truth be known, many of us are working hard to climb the corporate ladder, to impress our boss, to meet our own expectations, and to make more money. However, working long and hard for these reasons can lead to bitter disappointment and possibly even a premature death. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Japanese people.
Fortunately, Solomon has a solution for us. In Eccl 4:4-16, he encourages us to work smarter not harder and longer. How do we work smarter not harder? We work smarter not harder by making three specific choices.
When I was growing, up my dad would always tell me, “Moderation in everything.” Solomon imparts this same truth in these first three verses. He discusses the workaholic, the lazy sluggard, and then strikes the biblical balance between these two extremes. In 4:4 he writes, “I have seen that every labor and every skill133 which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”134Solomon once again observes life. He is a student of human nature and activity. In his “people watching,” Solomon discovers that people compete with one another in everything. The twofold use of the word “every” undoubtedly means every type of labor and achievement rather than every individual instance of these things. The point is: much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior over others. We live in a constant state of competition. Research indicates that nine out of ten office workers suffer from “professional envy” of colleagues they perceive to have more glamorous or better paid jobs.135 What drives many people is to climb the corporate ladder and outdo others.
This quest to get ahead is also true in other areas of our lives. We want to be more successful than our neighbors and friends. The clothes that you’re wearing right now, you’re not wearing because you needed them but because you wanted others to see you in them. You didn’t purchase that new car because you needed a car; you purchased that car because you wanted to be seen in that vehicle. Solomon is saying that we all want to be noticed and we want to be the focus of attention. Therefore, we envy one another and compete with one another. Whether we care to admit it or not rivalry is a driving force in all of us.
Some of us realize the evils of envy and rivalry and determine that we will be different. We don’t want to be the kind of people who step on everyone else on our climb to the top so we drop out of any competitive endeavor. Yet, this is a dangerous extreme as well.136 In 4:5, Solomon shares a proverb:137“The fool folds his hands and consumes [lit. “eats”] his own flesh.” The language of this verse means lazy people eventually make cannibals of themselves.138 They will kill themselves with starvation. Of course, Solomon is being sarcastic and he is using hyperbole. He mocks the lazy! Since they do not raise any crops, they must eat their own flesh.139
In the 1960s, one generation got sick of the affluence of the 1950s. So this group bailed out and claimed the title of “flower children.” Everybody gave up ambition and the drive for financial success. They let their hair grow long, quit bathing, and just sat on the grass and hummed.140 Obviously, this is not the way to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. I would dare say this is sheer laziness and foolishness.
Reflecting on foolishness, please give careful attention to the word “fool” in 4:5. When we read the word “fool” in the Bible, it is natural to assume that the term means “idiot” or “buffoon.” After all, this is what our English word “fool” means. Yet, the biblical meaning of this word means something far worse. A fool is someone who denies God, scoffs at wisdom, and laughs at eternity. Foolishness is a theological stance, a show of contempt for God’s laws.141
God intends for mankind to work, particularly the church. This is why our church emphasizes the importance of a godly work ethic. We believe that everyone who is physically, mentally, and emotionally able should work. Paul said it best when he wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Elsewhere, Paul said, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col 3:23). The Bible is clear that we are to represent Christ in our work.
One day a mother walked in on her six-year-old son and found him sobbing. What’s the matter?” she asks. The boy replied, “I’ve just figured out how to tie my shoes.” “Well, honey, that’s wonderful. You’re growing up, but why are you crying?” “Because,” he says, “Now I’ll have to do it every day for the rest of my life.”142 Maybe you feel like this six-year-old boy. You’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve recognized that you’re going to be doing the same tasks for what may seem the rest of your life. Perhaps you work a monotonous job, day in and day out, and it kills you to know that you may be working this job for the rest of your life. God wants you to know that there is glory in the grind. Shrug off laziness. Work like today is your last day of work, for it just might be. Work smarter not harder.
Solomon now strikes a balance between workaholism and laziness. His solution in 4:6 is: “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.” At first glance, it seems 4:6 contradicts 4:5; however, we must recognize that 4:6 like 4:5 is a proverb.143 The comparison is between anything with rest and anything with work.144 This is not an argument in favor of laziness but a call for balanced living.145 Blessed are the balanced! The wise person realizes that some things matter more than other things, that your career is not the measure of your self-worth, that having more money can’t replace the joy of spending time with people you love. Contentment means that you have everything you need right now. If you needed more, God would give it to you.146 Solomon is saying, “Rather than grasping for so much that you have to be a workaholic to get it, be content with less. It is better to have less and enjoy it more.” Our problem is not the high cost of living; it is the cost of high living. We want far too much. The cure is contentment, being willing to settle for less materially if it means we can have some “rest.”
A new store opened at Minnesota’s Mall of America, called MinneNAPolis. It rents comfy spots where weary shoppers can take naps for seventy cents a minute. The new store includes themed rooms such as Asian Mist, Tropical Isle, and Deep Space, and the walls are thick enough to drown out the sounds of squealing children outside. The company’s website says, “Escape the pressures of the real world into the pleasures of an ideal one.” Some guests will want to listen to music, put their feet up, watch the water trickling in the beautiful stone waterfall, breathe in the positive-ionization-filtered air, enjoy the full-body massager, and just take an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced lifestyle.147
Do you ever get tired of running in the rat race where only the rats win? A sign by the roadside carried this message: “I’m getting sick of the rat race. The rats keep getting bigger and faster.” How much more could we enjoy life if we were content with what the Lord has given us? How many families would cease to be divided and destroyed if parents stopped breaking their necks to give their kids a better life than they had? Let me close this section by giving you 4:6 in the Keith Krell Translation: “Rather than putting two hands in for eighty hours a week, why don’t you put in forty hours with one hand and with the other eat some bubble gum ice cream?”148 Work smarter not harder.
[Not only must we choose contentment over achievement, we must also…]
These verses remind us that people should be our priority. If you are too busy for the people in your life that matter most, you are too busy. In 4:7-8 Solomon writes, “Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, ‘And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.” Do you know anyone like this? Of course you do! With that person in mind, I’d like to describe this person. This man believes in the value of hard work and the inherent dignity of a job well done. He’s probably married and has at least three children whose picture he carries in his wallet. He loves his wife and thinks about her more than she knows. It’s true he works long hours—often he’s gone by six in the morning and doesn’t come home until after seven at night. The pressures at work are so enormous that it takes him an hour or two to unwind, so he doesn’t spend much time talking in the evening. He’s so tired that it’s all he can do to read the paper, watch a little television, and then go wearily to bed. His blood pressure is too high, he knows he needs to exercise, his diet isn’t the best, and sometimes he’s irritable and snaps at his family—and regrets it later. It’s true that he works seventy hours a week, but he doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic. He simply loves his job—and he’s good at it. And thankfully, he is able to bring home a nice paycheck and provide good things for his family. One of these days he plans to slow down and smell the coffee—but not today. He gulps his coffee and heads for the door before his family knows he’s gone. One evening he comes home and his family is not there. While he was at work, the kids grew up, his wife went back to college and found a career of her own, his children moved out, and now the house is empty. He can’t believe it. The Board of Directors just named him CEO. Now there’s no one to share the good news with. He made it to the top—alone.149
Even if you are not a successful, high-powered CEO, you can probably relate to this man. It is so easy to become consumed with work. We all tend to suffer from the hurry syndrome. We are busy people…so busy that sometimes we miss the significant people right in front of us. How many mothers and fathers have shortchanged their children for $10,000 or $20,000 extra a year? How many young consultants make great money but don’t have friends because they travel every week? How many wealthy people have accumulated huge nest eggs but no friends?150 Do you have anyone to enjoy life with? Are you taking the time to smell the coffee? Are you truly enjoying your children? Do you have any trusted friends?
The need to have someone to enjoy life with prompts Solomon to touch on friendship and community. In 4:9-12, he lists several benefits of friendship.
[We must choose contentment over achievement and relationships over riches. Solomon now concludes by urging us to…]
In this four verse parable, Solomon reminds us that popularity is fleeting; therefore, we are better to choose influence over popularity. The story goes like this: “A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction. For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind” (4:13-16). What is in view in this parable is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace. The point is that even though a young man may rise from the bottom of society 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 advancement and popularity. It is better to stay poor and wise. From this unimpressive position, it may be possible to influence more people than you ever thought possible. Influence must always trump popularity because popularity is temporal.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that life at the top is fleeting. Our attention span is short, our memories nonexistent, and our only question is, “What have you done for me lately?” Presidents and prime ministers may have extremely high approval ratings for a while, but they don’t last. Just ask President Bush. If the 18-0 Patriots lose today, their quarterback, Tom Brady, who is one of the greatest players in NFL history, will be a goat. Former Dallas Cowboy quarterback, Don Meredith, used to say about quarterbacks, “Today you are in the penthouse. Tomorrow you’re in the outhouse.”153 What is true of quarterbacks is also true of pastors, state workers, teachers, and small business owners. Popularity doesn’t last. Today’s heroes are tomorrow bums. Become president of the Rotary Club or PTA. Get elected chairman of your Homeowners Association. You’ll be doing great if more than half the people still like you when you’re done.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Winning the Super Bowl is the professional dream of every NFL player. It isn’t the money they make; a winner’s earnings from a Super Bowl appearance amount to less than a full game’s check for the average NFL player. It isn’t the Vince Lombardi trophy, which they don’t get to take home. It’s the fame, the respect, that moment of supreme glory. The players do receive a ring, and the Super Bowl ring is perhaps the most coveted prize of the world of sports—on par with an Olympic gold medal. But even such a ring may not last. Charlie Waters of the Dallas Cowboys found that out when his five Super Bowl rings were stolen from the closet in his home. Joe Gilliam won two Super Bowl rings as a member of the 1974 and 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, but he pawned them off for a few dollars after being caught in a vicious cycle of drug addiction and homelessness. Another former Steeler, Rocky Bleier, sold his four rings to cover divorce and bankruptcy proceedings. The Cowboys’ Thomas Henderson had his Super Bowl XII ring seized to pay back taxes. Former Raiders All-Pro cornerback Lester Hayes sold his to pay for dental work. Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins sold his ring to raise money to clear his name during a drug-trafficking case.
That ring, symbolic of months and years of hard work crowned by a season at the top, is as fleeting as the glory it supposedly stands for. The hype may be spectacular, the TV ratings may be the biggest of the year, the commercial time a cost of millions…but the glory is fool’s gold. Its luster is quickly tarnished. As Houston sports writer Steve Campbell puts it, “One of the dirty secrets about the Super Bowl is that the winner’s high often has less of a shelf life than a container of cottage cheese.”154
Achievement, riches, and popularity can all expire on us like cottage cheese. These three pursuits are so temporary. In the end they are hebel—breath, vapor, mist, and utter futility. So work smarter not harder. Just trust God, love people, and enjoy life.
Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:21
Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8
1. How have I been guilty of rivalry and jealousy at work (4:4)? Why do I want so desperately to advance professionally and financially? What am I hoping to achieve? How has this pursuit wearied me and disappointed me? How can I discoverer a happy medium between workaholism and laziness (4:5-6)?
2. To what extent am I working without pleasure (4:7-8)? How can I learn to enjoy what I do? Have I placed self-imposed requirements on myself that make it difficult to find fulfillment in my work? Am I guilty of striving for more “things” at the expense of my family, friends, and church? How can I adjust my priorities to better reflect eternal goals?
3. In my work environment, am I a team player (4:9-12)? Do I cooperate with coworkers to help them in their job? Can I honestly say that I want the success of others more than I want my own success? Do I seek to have meaningful relationships with others? Who am I currently investing my time and energy in?
4. Why do I yearn for position and prestige when I recognize that it is so temporal (4:13-16)? How can I alter my mindset so that I focus on making the most of life on this earth? How can I also store up treasure for myself in eternity? Read Matthew 6:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
5. What role do Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33-34 play in helping me to balance every area of my life? How can I put God’s kingdom first in my marriage, family, work, and church?
131 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
133 Longman suggests the translation, “success or achievement.” Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 136. The use of the Hebrew term kishron in Eccl 5:11 supports the translation “success.” See also NIV: “achievement.”
134 The phrase “vanity and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:4, 16) brackets this section.
135 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 87. See “Professional Jealousy Grips the Nation” 2 February 2004:
136 Solomon’s words in 4:5 seems to be the opposite of 4:4. Thus, Eaton writes, “We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference.” Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 93.
137 The phrase “folding of the hands” is used in Prov 6:10; 24:33.
138 Seow confirms the link to cannibalism and cites Lev 26:29; Deut 29:53; Jer 19:9; Ezek 39:28; Mic 3:3. Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 179.
139 See Prov 6:9-11; 10:4; 12:24; 19:15; 20:13; 24:30-34. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 137.
140 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 65.
141 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005). 68.
142 Preaching Today citation: John Ortberg, Leadership, Vol. 14, no. 3.
143 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 138.
144 Seow, Ecclesiastes, 180.
145 If Solomon has to choose between the two options of workaholism and laziness, he would choose working hard with a contented heart. Elsewhere Solomon writes, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1).
146 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 123-124.
147 Sermon News: http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=35.
148 Revised from Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 66.
149 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 125-126.
150 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God,67.
151 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 97.
152 Eccl 4:12 is often read at weddings with the threefold cord in marriage being understood as the bride, the groom, and Christ. However, jumping to such conclusions violates sound hermeneutical principles. The context of 4:9-12a (the value of “two” people in contrast to “one” and in climactic parallelism with “three”), correlated with similar teaching about two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name (Matt. 18:20), might legitimately suggest applying Eccl 4:12 to the importance of cooperation in the body of Christ. A careful distinction needs to be made between the primary interpretation and possible secondary applications today. William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 52-53.
153 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 69.
154 Quoted in Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 101.
Whenever I go to the airport to pick someone up, I park outside of the arrival terminal. My goal is always the same: to avoid paying to park my car. So I wait as long as I can near the curb of the airline pickup area. While waiting I will often hear a recording over the loudspeaker, “The white zone is for loading and unloading only. No parking.” Now, mind you, I am waiting to load up; however, if my passengers are delayed and I am waiting at the curb too long, a police officer usually approaches my car and asks me to move on. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I oblige him. However, I must confess that I have been known to make the loop at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and begin this vicious cycle all over again.
Can I be honest? I wish there were some way to announce over a loudspeaker system outside every church, “The worship zone is for learning, listening, and changing only. No parking! Be alert! Listen carefully. Truth will be deposited in your head that is designed to change your life.” But chances are good that even if a loudspeaker made such an announcement, the same thing would occur—folks would still “park” and turn a deaf ear to the recording and give pastoral police officers the runaround.157
In Eccl 5:1-9, Solomon pens some convicting words.158 He is going to sober us up. He may even make us feel badly. Now, I hope that you don’t come to church to be made to feel happy. The Bible isn’t a book about happiness; it is a book about holiness. This means sometimes the Bible will say things that you and I don’t like. Yet, if our goal is to become progressively holy, we will welcome the hard words of Scripture. For hard words make soft people and soft words make hard people.159 In these nine verses, Solomon shares two prohibitions that will enable us to exercise holiness and worship the right God in the right way. He wants us to see that God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.
In these first three verses, Solomon challenges his readers to prepare their hearts, minds, and mouths for worship. The idea is: before we worship, we must check our mental attitude and motive. In 5:1 Solomon writes, “Guard your steps160 as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.” This verse is rather meaty because it encapsulates two important issues: our preparation for worship and our participation in worship. The first emphasis is upon our preparation for worship. Since Solomon built the Old Testament temple, he was an expert on how to approach God. It took him seven years and 153,000 men to build the temple, so he knows a thing or two.161 In 5:1, Solomon’s first words are a command to “guard your steps.”162 This is a common expression in our culture. When you exit a bus, the bus driver will say, “Please watch your step.” When you are getting off a plan, a flight attendant will generally stand at the cockpit door and tell you, “Thank you for flying with us and please watch your step.” When someone tells you to watch your step they are warning you of a potential danger just ahead that you had better pay very close attention to. When you were growing up, was there ever a time when you became angry and spoke rash and disrespectful words to your parents? What was their response? If your parents were like my parents, you probably heard these words: “Watch your step, young man (or young woman).”163
Solomon warns you to “guard your step as you go to the house of God.” This seems out of the ordinary to our modern culture. We have warnings about sin, temptation, and unbelief, but a warning about how to worship seems unusual to our ears. Our problem is that we do not take worship seriously enough. We tend to think that as long as we are worshiping the Lord, it does not really matter how we worship. But the Scriptures teach otherwise. So sacred was God’s house that the Lord said to Moses in Lev 15:31: “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.” God at times actually took the lives of those who failed to come to His house in the right way, as a warning to the whole nation that they were dealing with a holy God.
My mom spent the first twenty years of her life in the Roman Catholic Church. When she became a Christian at twenty and began attending an evangelical church, she marveled at how lax evangelicals seemed to be in the church worship service. My mom saw people eating and drinking in church. She noticed people talking during the worship service, coming in late, and going in and out during worship. Initially, my mom didn’t know what to think. It seemed so irreverent. It took her years to understand the evangelical culture. So which worship culture is correct—the formal Catholic or Orthodox Church or the informal Protestant church? The answer is both can be right! Now please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. I recognize that in the church age there is nothing hallowed about a building. The Bible tells us that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit.164 However, when the church gathers for the purpose of worship, there ought to be a sense of God’s holiness and abiding presence.
This past week, Lori and I discussed with our children why it can be a good idea to fold our hands and close our eyes when we pray. The principle is to show respect for God and be free from distraction. We can’t put away some of the distractions that are in front of us so it can be helpful to close our eyes in prayer and in worship. Likewise, God wants us to enter into worship prepared and focused. Men are good at preparing. They’ll stay up late Friday night getting ready for Saturday’s fishing trip. They’ll spend hours organizing a basement workshop before beginning a project. They’ll devote a week preparing for a tailgate party at the football stadium. And they’ll study catalogs all summer looking for the perfect fall hunting jacket. The men of the Old Testament were charged by God with certain preparations as well—preparations for worship. At the first Passover, men were to select a perfect lamb, slaughter it, put its blood on the doorpost, roast the meat, and make sure the house was cleansed of leaven. Do men—or women—spend as much time preparing for worship today?165 What kinds of preparation should be made? Go to bed early and wake up early. Meditate on Scripture. Pray with your kids before church. Teach them the importance of service. Talk about the Lord on your way to the church. This Saturday, try to keep Sunday in mind. Try to give it the kind of preparation that will make it a day to remember. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.
The famous researcher, George Barna, recently said, “Having devoted more than two decades of my life and all of my professional skills to studying and working with ministries of all types, I am now convinced that the greatest hope for the local church lies in raising godly children.”166 Barna is exactly right! If the family breaks down, the core of society is demolished. It has been said again and again that the church is one generation from extinction. Therefore, it is imperative that we train our children how to worship God and love and serve the church.
5:1b alludes to participation in worship. Solomon says, “Draw near to listen…” Solomon has just indicted “Back Row Baptists.” It is so interesting to me that some Christians have to get to church early to make sure that they get that back row or near that back row. Instead of the front rows filling up first and moving backward, we start in the back and move forward. It is like we want to get in the church building but just barely in it. Solomon says draw near to listen. It is not draw near to sing louder. It is not draw near so that you can pray longer. It is not draw near so you can be closer to your friends so you can talk throughout the service together. No, it is draw near so that you can listen.
The “sacrifice of fools” refers to speaking foolishly.167 Solomon warns us of hearing too little and talking too much. The word “listen” carries double force: “listening with the intention of obeying.” God wants us to hear from Him. He seeks an open heart and a closed mouth. Thus, if you have walked out of church not hearing from God then you have not worshiped. You have attended church but you have not worshiped. You can check off your obligation card “I did it” but you did not worship. Worship can only occur when you hear from God. Today, will you make every effort to hear from God? Will you open up your heart and close your mouth?
Now that we’ve walked the walk, we have to talk the talk. We must talk cautiously to the Lord as well as walk cautiously before Him.168 In 5:2 Solomon writes, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.” When I was growing up, my parents would say, “Watch your tone of voice!” They wanted to remind me that they were in authority over me and I needed to respect them. Likewise, God is saying, “Believer, you need to remember who your Father is.” It is unwise to hastily and impulsively give God a piece of your mind. First of all, you will be giving God a piece of your mind that you can ill afford to lose. Second, Solomon declares that “God is in heaven and you are on the earth.” Many people assume Solomon is saying that God is way up there in heaven and we are way down here on earth, so we’d better listen well. In actuality, this is a statement of perspective, not distance. God is in the realm of the infinite. He alone hears the inaudible. He alone sees the invisible. That’s the reason we are to be calm and quiet.169 What a putdown; what a blow to our egos! In five simple words—“you are on the earth”—the author shoots down any chance for us to think “more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think” (Rom 12:3). What we consider to be great (i.e., “the earth”) Solomon and God conceive as being not merely small, but insignificant (in comparison to heaven). We are merely on earth—an average-sized planet in our relatively small solar system, but a planet that few humans have circumnavigated and even fewer have been able to leave for brief ventures into (near, not deep) space.170
Solomon wants you and me to understand that God is not your “buddy next door,” He’s not the “big man upstairs.” He’s the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is full of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Yes, He’s also a faithful friend and a caring Father, but He’s always more than that too. He expects us to take Him seriously as the chief authority in our lives.
Since we can’t understand everything, we should be careful about what we say to God. Do you know why? In 5:3 Solomon writes, “For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.” Just as hard work produces sleep and dreams, so a fool produces many words and much pontificating. In contrast, Solomon says that men of effort are known for their dreams. They work hard and they are silent. Can you say to God that you are mixed up and need some answers? Certainly. God wants us to be honest with Him. But He also wants us to be careful how we approach Him. You have to watch your tone of voice. We may ask why but not with anger or disrespect. There can be no accusations as though God were not in control or bitterness as though we sit in judgment over Him.171 God is free to do what He wants, whenever He wants. Remember, He is God. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.
[Why should you not be rash with your words? Because God is God and you are not. Solomon now shares a second prohibition.]
Solomon warns us against foolish speech and making foolish commitments. In 5:4 he writes, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Solomon says that if you make a vow to God, then you’d better do what you said you would do. He begins with the assumption that at some point or another most people will make a vow to God (“when you…”). Yet, he follows up this assumption with a prohibition: “do not be late in paying it.” He then concludes 5:4 with a short, direct command: “Pay what you vow!” This short sentence is literally translated, “WHAT YOU VOWED, pay [it]!” The emphasis is upon the vow. Solomon, in essence, labels the person “a fool” who fails to pay his vow on time.172 Think about this. People make vows all the time. People are baptized. People become members of a church. Parents dedicate their children. Spouses commit their lives to one another. People make commitments to read God’s Word and to maintain their purity. Yet, all of us have broken vows that we have made before God and others. Maybe you have even said, “God, if you get me out of this mess I promise that I am going to stop this or start that or serve you with my life. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God remembers these vows and holds us to them.
Therefore, Solomon’s suggestion in 5:5-6 is, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” Solomon says, “It would be better for us to keep quiet and not utter anything rash or foolish.” This is why I challenge people who are contemplating marriage and church membership. I want to make sure they understand what they are committing to. Please listen carefully: I believe that there are many Christians today who are experiencing God’s judgment in their lives because of their refusal to follow through with their commitments to Him. That judgment may not come in the form of physical ailments and death, though it certainly can.173 It may instead come by means of God destroying the work of our hands. That is, God may take our goals and aspirations and efforts to succeed and just turn those things into dust. Or He may allow us to prosper but make us miserable in our prosperity.174
In 5:7 Solomon writes, “For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.”175Solomon returns to the idea of dreams. His conclusion is that dreams and words can be nothing but emptiness—hebel. Thus, he tells us to fear God. To fear God is to stand in awe of Him. It is not to quake into oblivion or to become comatose. It is to acknowledge His worth. It is to respond to Him with obedience and gratitude. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.
Solomon closes out this section in 5:8-9 with an exhortation for us to watch what we think in reference to humans. “If you see oppression of the poor and denial176 of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” These are peculiar verses that don’t seem to fit in this chapter. Yet, it seems best to place these verses with 5:1-7 instead of with 5:10-20. What, if any, connections are there between the two sets of verses? In what way(s) are we to compare our relationship to earthly rulers with how we are to act in the presence of God? It seems that Solomon is suggesting that we would not be so foolish as to chatter boldly before imperfect but powerful government leaders about problems we encounter. If not, then why do we chatter incessantly before the all-powerful God?177 He is sovereign and is in complete control.
While we search for excellence in many areas of living, let us not forget to pursue it also in our worship by paying attention, paying our vows, and paying respect. It might be easy to conclude from this message that a Christian should pray silent and short prayers, should never make public commitments, and should cower in absolute fear of God. But to come to that conclusion would be to miss the whole point. Rather, what we should do is to be sincere when we speak, to think through our commitments before we make them, and to never lose our reverence and awe for God.
As I close this message, I would like to speak to my friend, Don Prozora, who is sitting in the front row in a hospital chair. Don, this message exemplifies you like no one else I know. When your son died one year ago this month, you worshiped God and trusted Him with all your heart and soul. When your dad died this past month you worshiped God and trusted Him. When you were diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, you worshiped God and trusted Him with all your heart. The week that the diagnosis was made, you were at the front door of our church serving as a greeter. Each and every week you have sought to come to church because you love the Lord Jesus and this church family. You have been a man of supernatural faith, perseverance, and confidence in God. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone like you. You have challenged me and inspired me and countless others. You have taught our church how to enjoy life and die well. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have taught me what it means to have an open heart and a closed mouth.
1 Samuel 1:9-2:11
Proverbs 10:19; 12:22; 13:3
Matthew 5:33-37; 12:36-37
1. What religious practices do I find to be empty or meaningless in my life (5:1)? Which are most meaningful? What steps can I take to make the “empty” aspects of my relationship with God more meaningful?
2. What steps do I take on Saturday evening and early Sunday morning to ready myself for worship (5:2-3)? How can I improve my preparation for worshiping God? How can I help my family prepare to worship God? What steps can I take to help me concentrate on glorifying God instead of concentrating on the worries and problems that often distract during worship?
3. Have I made any vows before the Lord recently (5:4-5)? What actions am I taking to fulfill my vow? Am I a man or woman of my word? What examples can I provide that demonstrate my integrity? What steps can I take to become a promise keeper instead of a promise breaker?
4. Do I talk too much (5:6-7)? Would other people say that I talk too much? If so, what do I tend to talk about? Is all my talk necessary? How can I encourage another person not to talk too much? Why is it so important to be slow to speak? Meditate on James 1:19.
5. Do I have a healthy respect for God (5:7)? Am I in awe of Him? What attribute or characteristic am I particularly astounded by? How have I learned to respect and honor my governing authorities (5:8-9)? Read Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.
155 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
156 This sermon is dedicated to my good friend, Don Prozora, who is dying of liver cancer. This is most likely Don’s last Sunday at church. I can’t think of a more appropriate message that exemplifies Don’s life.
157 This illustration idea came from Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 149.
158 This passage seems to be an interlude in the book of Ecclesiastes. So far in the book, Solomon has been focused on the horizontal, but now he focuses in on the vertical. This chapter presents something of an interlude. Up to this point, Solomon has been merely giving his observations. But now he gives a series of exhortations. So far, he has only showed us the way the world IS. Now he tells us what we are to DO on the basis of how the world is. (1) Before worship (5:1a); (2) during worship (5:1b-3); and (3) after worship (5:4-9).
159 I first heard this quote from Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Ballard, WA.
160 The commands of Eccl 5:1 and that of 5:7 together form an inclusio around this section, emphasizing the point that God is God and we are not. Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
161 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.
162 This is an idiom for “be careful what you do.” The NET Study Notes write, “This is a compound figure: ‘foot’ is a metonymy for ‘step,’ and ‘step’ is a metonymy for ‘action’ (e.g., Job 12:5; 23:11; 31:5; Pss 119:59, 101, 105; Prov 1:16; 3:23; 4:26-27; 6:18; 19:2; Isa 58:13; 59:7; Jer 14:10).
163 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 108.
164 See Paul’s words in 1 Cor 6:19: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Cf. 1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16 where Paul speaks of the local church as God’s temple.
165 David Jeremiah, “Turning Point,” 1/18/2008.
166 David Jeremiah, “They Walked with Him: The Little Children,” Today’s Turning Point 2/9-10/2008.
167 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 74. See Hos 14:2; Heb 13:15.
168 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 109.
169 Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 152-153.
170 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
171 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 74-75.
172 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes. The content of 5:4 (Heb. 5:3) is similar in meaning and intent to that of Num 30:2 and Deut 23:21, as the following chart reveals:
Eccl. 5:4 (NASB) “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!”
Num. 30:2 (NASB) “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Deut. 23:21 (NASB) “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you.”
173 See the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:27-34).
174 See also Michael P. Andrus, “In Search of Excellence in Worship” (Eccl 5:1-7): unpublished sermon notes.
175 The phrase “fear God” also occurs in Eccl 3:14; 7:18; 8:12, 13; and 12:13.
176 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, writes, “The word translated by the NASB here as ‘denial’ (gazel) is consistently translated by the NASB as ‘robbery’ (or the like) in each of the five other occurrences of this noun in Scripture (Lev 6:2; Isa 61:8; Ezek. 18:18; Ezek 22:29; Ps 62:1). The verb form of this noun (gazel) is variously translated as ‘to seize,’ ‘to take by force,’ ‘to tear away,’ and ‘to rob.’ Thus, the word here translated as ‘denial’ should be understood to convey a sense of forcefulness with it. In other words, by using this noun, the author graphically portrays a situation in which “justice and righteousness” have been ripped away from people against their will.
177 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
Four years ago, a sixty-two-year-old Frenchman was rushed to the emergency room. This poor man was suffering severe stomach pain. There was an enormously dense mass in the patient’s stomach that weighed twelve pounds. It was so heavy that it had forced his stomach down between his hips. Five days after his arrival, doctors cut him open and removed his badly damaged stomach and its contents, but the man died a few days later from complications.
What is so astonishing about this man’s story is what the doctors found inside of his stomach. The dense twelve pound mass was not a cancerous tumor. Rather, the patient had swallowed around 350 coins: the equivalent of 650 American dollars! The doctor said he was suffering from a rare illness that makes people want to eat money.179
Now you are probably saying to yourself, “That’s simply INSANITY! I am nothing like this mentally unhealthy fellow! I would never swallow coins, especially 350 of them.” Honestly, I am glad to hear this. As we tell our children, “Swallowing coins is dangerous. Don’t do it!” Now, let me ask you, “Are you gorging yourself sick with money and materialism?” Stop for just a moment and take inventory of your life. Are you sacrificing much time away from your family and church because of money? Are you losing needed rest for the sake of a job? Are you working too hard for material gain? Many of us, if we are truly honest, would have to say “yes” to these questions.
In Eccl 5:10-20, Solomon is going to discuss the misuse and abuse of money. To coin an Italian proverb, Solomon states, “Money is a good servant but a bad master.”180 Now before you are tempted to tune out and say to yourself, “All that pastors want to talk about is money,” I want you to stop in your tracks. One of the convictions of our church is that we will preach the full counsel of God’s Word.181 When that commitment is made and maintained, money will have to be discussed. Consider this: Sixteen out of thirty-eight of Christ’s parables deal with money; more is said in the New Testament about money than heaven and hell combined; five times more is said about money than prayer; and where there are five-hundred-plus verses on both prayer and faith, there are over two thousand verses dealing with money and possessions. Why all this talk about money? Jesus said it best, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). God understands that our use of money and possessions may be the single greatest indicator of our spirituality. So let’s see what Solomon has to say. In this passage, he offers us five sobering realities on money and then two profound truths about God.182 He begins with his five sobering realities on money.
Solomon begins by informing us that money is not the secret to happiness. Instead, it is addictive and unsatisfying. In 5:10 he writes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity.” It is important to notice the twofold repetition of the verb “loves.” Money is not the problem; rather, the love of money is the issue.183 It has been said, “Money makes a lousy lover. The more you love it, the less it satisfies. The more you focus on it, the less it delivers.”184 Yet, most Americans are tempted to think: If I had more money; if I could marry the person of my dreams; if I could build my dream house; if I could get a certain promotion or position; if I could gain a certain position of influence; if I could solve a certain problem; if I didn’t have to do something…then I would be happy. In all of this, happiness is dependent upon happenings—more money and more possessions.
Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)185 how much money he wanted. He answered, “Just a little bit more.” This accurately describes most Americans. Unfortunately, whether we care to admit it or not, this is true of many Christians. We have developed a love for money and abundance. Yet, Solomon says, “Take it from me, a man who had it all, money does not satisfy.”
The problem is that we don’t believe him. We think it would be different for us. We wouldn’t be miserable. We would be happy. But let me ask you this: Do you think most people in Hollywood are content? Does it seem like most professional athletes are content? We would say that they “have it all” yet they are caught up in drugs, alcohol, violence, and divorce. The inescapable conclusion is that money and possessions are hebel—vanity!
This is an especially important realization for married couples or for those considering marriage. U.S. research indicates that wives or husbands who place high value on possessions are more likely to experience financial problems, which puts a strain on the marriage relationship. The study showed that very materialistic couples had a 40 percent higher risk of having financial problems than other couples, which can then impact marital happiness.186 Therefore, it is critical that married couples in particular spend money wisely, work off a budget, and save. Those couples who are considering marriage need to wrestle with spending habits, standard of living issues, and debt. Remember money is a good servant but a bad master.
[The more we have, the more we want. Now Solomon says…]
Solomon states that when you have a lot of money you tend to spend a lot of money. In 5:11 he writes, “When good things increase, those who consume them increase. So what is the advantage to their owners except to look on?” A person who comes into wealth suddenly discovers he or she has long-lost relatives and would-be friends (cf. Prov 19:4). The Message puts it this way: “The more loot you get, the more looters show up.” In other words, money brings out parasites or leeches. Seriously, it takes a lot of people to manage wealth, business, and property. There are bankers, brokers, financial consultants, lawyers, tax consultants, accountants, household employees, bodyguards, and sponging relatives.187 People can’t take care of their wealth all by themselves. They are dependent upon others. What is so sadly ironic is that more money means more workers to help make, distribute, and protect money. Often, this causes the profit margin of the owner to decrease. Is more better?! In many cases, it is not.
Therefore, you and I need to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of believing that if we just had a little more money, then that would solve all of our problems. Let’s be honest, isn’t there a part in all of us that thinks if we only had enough to pay all of our bills or get what we are longing for, all of our problems would disappear? In truth, having more actually creates as many problems as it solves. As we get more stuff there are more things to take care of that will demand more of our time and money. We become even more tied down. To make matters worse, the more you have, the more people there will be who resent you for what you have. Indeed, money is a good servant but a bad master.
[The more we have, the more we spend. Solomon goes on to say…]
Wealth does not give peace or rest but only promotes insomnia because the rich worry about how the wealth is to be maintained. Solomon writes, “The sleep of the working man is pleasant, whether he eats little or much; but the full stomach of the rich man does not allow him to sleep.” Solomon has observed that the person who works hard and only has basic necessities sleeps well no matter how much he has to eat. The rich man is actually more restless because he has eaten too much, he has too much going on in his life, and he can’t unwind. Stuff does not bring peace—it actually brings more anxiety. The wealthy are always afraid of losing what is theirs, while the poor man is content with what little he has. This is borne out in our sleep patterns. Did you know that the primary reason people in our culture cannot sleep is tension? And the primary cause for tension is worry over money. What is the stock market doing, how is the economy affecting sales, and how can I keep good people and get rid of those who I do not want? How about OSHA, the IRS, and government regulations?
Think about it. You started out to own things, now they own you. Maybe that promotion wasn’t so perfect after all. Like Henry Ford once said, “I was happier when doing a mechanic’s job.”188 Perhaps you can relate to this. When you don’t have a lot of money, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. However, the one resting on his wealth has nothing to think about except the possibility of losing it through bad investments, lawsuits, or theft. If you find yourself preoccupied, anxious, and sleepless, you may have affluenza. So work hard and learn contentment. If you do, you will sleep well.189 And isn’t your peace of mind and rest worth far more than riches and success?
John D. Rockefeller’s life was almost ruined by wealth. At the age of fifty-three, Rockefeller was the world’s only billionaire, earning about a million dollars a week. But he was a sick man who lived on crackers and milk and could not sleep because of worry. When he started giving his money away, his health changed radically and he lived to celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday!190
[The more we have, the more we worry. Now Solomon says…]
The tendency of many Americans who have wealth is to forget about those who do not. The selfish tendency of mankind grieves Solomon. He wants us to know, “What comes around goes around.” Listen to these words: “There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches being hoarded by their owner to his hurt.” Solomon calls hoarding a “grievous evil” (5:13). In the end, selfish greed only leads to the hurt of the hoarder. It has been said, “He who has no money is poor; he who has nothing but money is even poorer.” The truth is: we show what we love by what we do with what we have. If we are generous and sacrificial in giving to the Lord’s work and caring for others, we will have peace. If we choose to hoard, we will have hurt.
Verse 14 is very interesting to me. I think Solomon implies that the one who hoards may find that when it is time for his children to inherit his wealth, nothing remains. All it takes is a bad business venture.191
Solomon writes, “When those riches were lost through a bad investment and he had fathered a son, then there was nothing to support him.” Solomon pictures a person spending his whole life saving for the future and then a calamity strikes—a catastrophic illness, fraud, a stock market crash, perhaps a terrorist attack that destroys the economy, or a “sure fire” investment that goes bad. How many people have lost that which they worked their lives for because they had an extended nursing home stay? The truth is we are all very vulnerable. We are just one illness, accident, or crime away from losing it all. Thus, our hope better be in something more secure than money,for money is a good servant but a bad master.
[The more we have, the more we hoard. Now Solomon says…]
These three verses remind us that money is transitory and temporal. Like flour in a sieve, money slides through some people’s fingers.192 In 5:15, we come to “the naked truth.” Solomon writes, “As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand.” Solomon points out that we go as we come—naked. We’ve even coined a phrase that reminds us of how we came into this world. If a person has no clothes on, we might say he’s wearing his “birthday suit.”193 Proverbs 23:4-5 says, “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, Cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings like an eagle that flies toward the heavens.” Did you know that on the back of a dollar bill is a picture of an eagle with his wings stretched out? When I saw it recently I thought, “Now that’s appropriate…and truly biblical as well.” And that old dollar bill will just fly right out of my wallet and so will the next one and so will the next hundred and so will the next thousand. Solomon tells us why. They make themselves “wings.”194
Every year, Forbes magazine publishes a special report on the top-earning dead celebrities. Last year (2007), the top five were Elvis, John Lennon, Charles Schulz, George Harrison, and Albert Einstein. 195
These men earned a lot of money during their earthly lives and now their estates are prospering after their deaths, however apart from Jesus Christ it is vanity. Solomon is clear: You can’t take it with you. However, the flip side of that coin is positive: You can send it ahead. Jesus commanded us to “store up for ourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20). By giving to the Lord’s work and being a blessing to others, your money can outlive you. For now, we only need to remember that in eternal terms there is no own—only loan.196 In other words, we are not owners; we are merely stewards of God’s resources.
Solomon concludes this section in 5:16-17 with disappointing words regarding the pursuit of wealth: “This also is a grievous evil—exactly as a man is born, thus will he die. So what is the advantage to him who toils for the wind? Throughout his life he also eats in darkness with great vexation, sickness and anger.” Solomon reminds us that despite all of our work and wealth, we are going to die. And to make matters worse, if we are obsessed with wealth in this life, happiness will evade us. Andrew Carnegie was right, “Millionaires seldom smile.” Money can’t console you in loneliness, illness, or hardship.197Affluenza hangs a dark cloud over life. It causes sorrow (fighting, lawsuits, greed), sickness (stress, ulcers, back pain), and anger (bitterness, resentment, anger at others who use you). And for what?
Money is a good servant but a bad master.
Well, enough bad news, now for some good news. Solomon says that there is a divine prescription for achieving satisfaction, security, and significance in life. In 5:18-20, he shares that happiness ultimately comes from God. He mentions God four times in these three verses. Listen to these two truths about God.
Even though you may assume that work is a curse, work is God’s gift. Work was before the fall of man and work will continue into the eternal state; for ultimately work is an expression of worship. Solomon writes, “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward.” God gives mankind work as a reward! This ought to motivate you and me to express gratitude for our jobs. When you wake up tomorrow morning, you need to thank the Lord for a beating heart and for red blood pumping through your veins. You need to thank Him for your job and for the strength He has given you to work your job.
[Not only does God give work as His gift…]
These final verses emphasize the truth that our wealth comes directly from the hand of God. Solomon writes, “Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.” These verses demonstrate that wealth is not condemned (cf. 1 Tim 6:16). The key phrase in 5:18 is “God has given riches and wealth.” But you may say, “I thought I worked for it!” Yes, but God gave you health, a country, economy, skill, and opportunity.198 Apart from His strength and provision, you would not have what you have. And God wants you to know that if He has given you wealth, He wants you to enjoy it. But one word to the wealthy: Enjoy the wealth God has given you without leaving Him and others out. God is good and the giver of good gifts. We want the good gifts God wants to give us. However, we often seek the gift but do not seek the capacity to enjoy the gift. Job observed that in Job 1:21—that The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job was able to say that because what God had given him as a gift of capacity was more important than the gift of prosperity itself. When we ask God for blessing, we should also ask Him for the gift of capacity so we can enjoy the blessings He gives. Our recognition of God as the one who gives the capacity to enjoy His blessings allows us to relax and enjoy whatever He gives. Principle: We must be more occupied with the giver than with the gifts.199
So keep busy and enjoy life; don’t fret over its brevity and difficulty. Here’s a happy heart. Righteous people are enabled by God to work hard, laugh loud, enjoy their life and their stuff as gifts from God’s own hand. They have a rich and full life, whether they have prosperity or they are poor.
There is a story told of a rich industrialist who came across a simple fisherman. The rich man was quite perturbed to see the fisherman sitting back with his feet up next to his boat on a sunny afternoon. “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he demanded. “Because I’ve caught enough fish for the day,” replied the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch more fish?” asked the rich man. “What would I do with them?” “You could earn more money,” said the rich man, who was becoming more impatient, “and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish and make more money. Then you could buy more boats and could hire others to help you fish. Soon you would have a fleet of boats and would be rich like me!” “Then what would I do?” “You could sit down and enjoy life” said the industrialist. “What do you think I’m doing right now?” replied the fisherman as he gazed out towards the sea.
The lesson here is not that “money can’t buy you happiness,” but rather, “you don’t need money to be happy,” nor power, nor accomplishments, nor any of those things. Happiness lies outside of things we work for. It’s not that we shouldn’t work; it’s just that it’s useless to pursue happiness through work, or through what work can provide for us.200 Rather, God wants us to work hard and enjoy the good gifts that He has given us. Make your money your servant to serve others, not your master so that it masters you.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
1 Peter 2:11
1. Do I love money and abundance (5:10)? How does this manifest itself in my life? How have I grown dissatisfied with my income and possessions? Read Matthew 6:24; 16:26; 1 Timothy 6:10; and Hebrews 13:5. At what point in my life have I been the most content? In what ways am I currently learning contentment? Read Philippians 4:11-12.
2. Now that I am financially well off, have my friends increased (5:11; cf. Proverbs 14:20)? Why or why not? Would these people still remain my friends if I lost all of my wealth tomorrow? Would they be around if I had serious needs? Is being wealthy all that I thought it was cracked up to be? Am I happier than I have ever been or was I better off when I didn’t have as much (5:12)? When was I more satisfied (cf. 5:10)?
3. How have I been guilty of hoarding my wealth (5:13)? How have I seen my riches fail me (5:14)? What will I leave behind when I die (5:15-16)? How can I become a generous and cheerful giver? Read 2 Corinthians 9:6.
4. What makes your heart glad? Is it money, possessions, pleasure, or success? The message of the Bible is that we have been saved to have a relationship with God (John 10:10; 17:3). Our purpose in being is to come to know Him. Augustine (354-430) once said, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.” How have I found this to be true in my own life?
5. How is my work and my wealth a part of fulfilling God’s eternal plan for my life and His kingdom (5:18-20)? Read 1 Corinthians 3:8, 14 and 15:58. How am I thankful for my job and my money? What steals away my contentment and joy? How can I counteract these “joy-busters?”
178 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
181 As Paul said, “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:26-27).
182 See Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale,  2003), 49; Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 125-132.
183 This truth is also evident in 1 Tim 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
184 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 113.
186 Sermon News, “Spouses Who Love Money will cause Marital Problems”: http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=732. For more info seehttp://www.reuters.com/article/gc08/idUSL059663420070305?&src=030507_1531_ARTICLE_PROMO_also_on_reuters.
187 William MacDonald, & Art Farstad, Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995).
188 Charlie Bing, “Be Wise with Your Wealth” (Eccl 5:8-20): unpublished sermon.
189 Sleep (BDB 445) is a gift from God (cf. Ps. 4:8; 127:2; Prov. 3:24; 6:22). Those who do not trust God devise evil on their beds instead of sleeping (cf. Ps. 36:4; Prov. 4:16; Micah 2:1). Earthly possessions rob the owners of sleep (e.g., Prov. 11:28; 18:10-12; 28:11; 30:8-9). They constantly worry about (1) their loss or (2) getting more! Bob Utley, “Ecclesiastes,”: unpublished commentary.
190 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 128.
191 The Hebrew expression translated “bad investment” (Eccl 5:14) refers to any misfortune that results in the loss of wealth. Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 17.
192 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
193 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 150.
194 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality (Waco, TX: Word, 1985), 168.
195 Ed. Lea Goldman and David M. Ewalt, “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities”:http://www.forbes.com/2007/10/29/dead-celebrity-earning-biz-media-deadcelebs07_cz_lg_1029celeb_land.html.
196 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 130.
197 Bing, “Be Wise with Your Wealth.”
198 Deut 8:18.
200 Tim Krell, “Chasing the Wind,” unpublished paper.
A man walks into a shoe store and asks for a pair of shoes, size eight. The well-trained salesman says, “But sir, you take an eleven or eleven-and-a-half.” “Just bring me a size eight.” The sales guy brings the shoes and the man crams his feet into them and stands up in obvious pain. He turns to the salesman and says, “I’ve lost my house to the I.R.S., I live with my mother-in-law, my daughter ran off with my best friend, and my business has filed Chapter 7. The only pleasure I have left is to come home at night and take my shoes off.”202
Can you relate to this man? Is your savings and checking account nearly depleted? Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are your cars and appliances ready to give up the ghost? Is your job tearing your innards apart? Is your marriage faltering? Are your kids making your life especially difficult? Are you sick and tried of being sick and tired? Are you lonely or depressed? Like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, do you exclaim, “I can’t get no satisfaction?” Like Bono and U2, do you lament, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for?” If so, this passage from the Bible is tailor-made for you. In Ecclesiastes 6, Solomon tells us that satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings. In this chapter, he shares two ways that you and I can experience true satisfaction.
In this first section, Solomon discusses the three measuring sticks of success in Hebrew society: wealth, long life, and lots of children.203 As wonderful as these good gifts are, unless God is in the midst we cannot enjoy them. In 6:1-2, Solomon shares his basic premise: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men—a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction.” The “evil” that Solomon speaks of in 6:1 refers to the painful misfortune204 of not being able to enjoy God’s good gifts. Solomon says that this misfortune is “prevalent among men.” This means that many people who have lived down throughout time have struggled with contentment and enjoyment. I know this is hard to believe, but it is in the Bible so it must be true. In 6:2, the active presence of God is emphasized. Solomon writes that God is the one who has given “riches and wealth and honor” (cf. 5:19). But here the blessing of material possessions is not balanced with the wisdom to enjoy them!
Solomon is penning a very important principle: Every good gift that God gives205 can only be truly and ultimately enjoyed if God empowers us. Riches, wealth, and honor do not automatically bring happiness, contentment, satisfaction, or a lasting benefit! Rather, they can bring unhappiness, ingratitude, restlessness, and grief. A perfect example of this is Howard Hughes (1905-1976). At age 45, Hughes was one of the most glamorous men in America. He dated actresses, piloted exotic test aircraft, and worked on top-secret CIA contracts. He owned a string of hotels around the world, and even an airline—TWA—to carry him on global jaunts. Twenty years later, at age 65, Howard Hughes still had plenty of money—$2.3 billion to be exact. But the world’s richest man had become one of its most pathetic. He lived in small dark rooms atop his hotels, without sun and without joy. He was unkempt: a scraggly beard had grown waist-length, his hair fell down his back, and his fingernails were two inches long. His once powerful 6’4” frame had shrunk to about 100 pounds. This famous man spent most of his time watching movies over and over, with the same movie showing as many as 150 times. He lay naked in bed, deathly afraid of germs. Life held no meaning for him. Finally, wasting away and hooked on drugs, he died at age 67 for lack of a medical device his own company had helped to develop.206
The lesson of Howard Hughes is this: “Never judge a book by its cover.” Even though Hughes had it all, he did not have the supernatural ability to enjoy what he had been richly given. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are also some of the most miserable. This is what happens when God is left out of the equation. All that this world has to offer can be incredibly empty and unsatisfying. It can be vanity!
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said it well, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”207 Truly, prosperity may be a greater test of character than poverty. A Romanian church leader who spent time in the West said, “95% of believers who face the test of persecution pass it; 95% who face the test of prosperity fail it.”208 How are you doing with the prosperity God has given you? Are you passing the test? If not, pray for the grace to find satisfaction in God’s good gifts.
I want you to imagine for just a moment that you absolutely love peaches. You have an insatiable appetite them. (Lord willing, this is not too far-fetched for you if you hate peaches.) Now imagine that God has given you countless cans of peaches. You are anxious to begin eating them, but then it dawns on you that you don’t have a can opener. Unless you are especially creative, you’re in trouble. You can’t enjoy all of these peaches without a can opener. If you are smart, you will ask God who gave you all these cans of peaches for a can opener. And then you will be able to enjoy your peaches. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many cans you might accumulate unless the Lord gives you a can opener to go with your cans of peaches. We need to enjoy daily life whatever it brings,209 trust in eternal life whenever and however physical life ceases,210 honor God,211 and obey God.212Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.
In 6:3-6, Solomon uses two illustrations to drive home his point about the vanity of money and pleasure apart from God. He puts it like this: “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, ‘Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things—do not all go to one place?’” Solomon offers us the eye-opening comparison of a stillborn child and a 2,000 year-old man who fathers 100 children. One enjoys the full rich feast of life and comes back for about 25 second helpings; the other doesn’t quite make it to the table.213 Solomon exaggerates to make his point. The longest lifespan recorded in Scripture is Methuselah, and he lived to be “only” 969 years old (Gen 5:27). Imagine a man who lives more than twice that long—to be 2,000 years old—and has a hundred children in the process. Solomon’s point here is obvious: You could live twice as long as anyone else and have more children than anyone else, but if God is not involved and He is not granting you His satisfaction, it’s all worthless.
In fact, Solomon says that a miscarriage is better than such a person! Now we need to be careful not to misread Solomon at this point. He does not in any way argue that a literal “miscarriage of a child” is a good thing.214 His concerns here are more philosophical than literal. Obviously, it is tempting to kind of dance around the reality of a miscarriage being a part of this text. We all know people who have suffered through the tragedy of miscarriage. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching. My heart breaks for those parents who have suffered this ordeal. If you have experienced a miscarriage, I want you to know how sorry I am. Please know that I hurt for you and your church family hurts for you. Yet, in spite of your great pain and loss, I want us to hear and feel the weight of Solomon’s point: “It is more tragic for someone to be given life and possessions and honor and riches and not enjoy life’s good things than the tragedy of miscarriage.” You see for Solomon, he recognizes both of them as tragic. He’s just saying that it is more tragic for life to be granted and a person not to enjoy the good things in life than it is for a baby to not come to term. Do you feel his emphasis? You see, for all of us, we are on this side of life. We are on this side of life where we have been given opportunity to enjoy it, and Solomon is saying this, “If your life is not marked by the enjoyment of life’s good things, then it is better off that you were not even born at all.” In a nutshell his point is: “Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life.”215 Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings. Will you join me in praying that the Lord will increase your level of satisfaction with the many good gifts that He has given you? If so, I can assure you that God will grant you a greater spirit of contentment.216
Now if we are to properly understand 6:3-6, we must step outside of our western mindsets. First, in ancient Israel, children were not an inconvenience; rather, they were considered a great blessing from God. Furthermore, children were not a financial burden; they were an economic asset to their family.217 Hence, the goal was to have a lot of kids. Second, a proper burial was also of utmost importance because it served as a statement about the significance of your life.218 Although this is not evident in our English versions, it is more likely that the “proper burial” does not refer to the rich man, but to the miscarried child. So the phrase would read: “Even if it does not have a proper burial, I say that the stillborn is better off than he.”219 Either way, the day of one’s death was important. Third, growing old was not looked down upon. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon says that “the honor of old men is their gray hair” and a “gray head is a crown of glory.”220 Long life was a great blessing from the Father.221 Yet, all of these good gifts cannot provide a lasting benefit (cf. 1:3; 2:18).
If Solomon were alive today I think he would urge us to stop worshiping our kids and our health. All too often life revolves around family. So many people seek a release from materialistic culture by making family a god in our own day. They get married and think that marriage is going to be the place where they find ultimate satisfaction. Then suddenly, you find out that she recognizes all your weaknesses, and you’re not as nice as her dad, and its hard work, and its rough going. Suddenly, the thing that was going to provide you satisfaction is the source of your greatest heartbreak. That’s what Solomon is saying.
Family, children, grandchildren, as great a blessing as these can be, are not the source of satisfaction. Similarly, many of us want to live long and prosperous lives. We try to eat right, work out, and make sure we look good. Yet, the truth is, many people who have been given long life do not use their years wisely for the Lord. So the issue is not long life per se, but rather how you live the life you have. It has been said, “It’s not the years in life but the life in the years.”222 Our health, children, and grandchildren can all be taken away so quickly. Sickness, bacteria, or an accident can rob us of long life and our children and grandchildren. Therefore, we need to enjoy what God has given us while we can. There is no guarantee that we will have our health and loved ones tomorrow. Therefore, live your life with enjoyment today! And remember satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.
[Solomon says, “Enjoy the blessings of this life.” Yet, he also wants you and me to…]
In this second section, Solomon reminds us that life has its challenges and we need to accept this reality. In 6:7-9, he provides three proverbial summaries of the futility of life: “All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living? What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind.”223 In 6:7, Solomon says that we all work so that we can eat. When you boil it down, whether you’re a high-profile CEO of a Fortune 500 company or you’re a college student working part-time for Burger King, you essentially work for food. You just work for your next meal. It’s sad but true. Think about it: Have you ever developed a hunger for a particularly appetizing dish? And then you ate it. And by the next day, no matter how good the meal was, you were hungry again. There is a curious repetition of hunger. It doesn’t matter how well you ate yesterday, tomorrow you will be hungry again. A man works and works to buy food, but it’s never enough. He has to keep working because he continually gets hungry and needs to eat. Wealth will never satisfy you. It will never scratch your itch deep enough.224
While the immediate reference is to food, Solomon’s intention seems to speak to anything material (Prov 16:26). Whatever it is that you pick to attempt to satisfy your soul will eventually be found to be lacking. Or to put it another way, stuff doesn’t satisfy. Why not? Because physical things can only satisfy physical needs, and that for which you hunger on the inside is a hunger of the soul. This is seen vividly in the Hebrew text of this verse. The word translated “appetite” (nephesh) in 6:7 is the same word translated “soul” in 6:2 and 3. Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.
In 6:8 Solomon states, regardless of who you are (wise or poor) there is no ultimate satisfaction in this life unless you enjoy it. This leads to 6:9 which suggests, use what is available instead of yearning for that which is beyond you. Solomon’s proverb is similar to the more familiar, “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush” (Prov 17:24). A roving appetite is not satisfied with what is at hand; it impatiently looks for something new, something better. Generally speaking, actually having something that you want (and is good for you) is better than merely wishing you had that same thing.225 What do your eyes see when they look at your life? Are your eyes satisfied or is your life lived around what the soul desires? Always more, always what you do not have; living for the future potential of filet mignon, and not enjoying the spam burger you have on you plate today.
When we take our children to the shrine of the Golden Arches, they always lust for the meal that comes with a cheap little prize, a combination christened in a moment of marketing genius—the Happy Meal. You’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a happy meal.” I try to buy off the kids sometimes. I tell them to order only the food and I’ll give them a quarter to buy a little toy on their own. But the cry goes up, “I want a Happy Meal.” All over the restaurant, people crane their necks to look at the tight-fisted, penny-pinching cheapskate of a parent who would deny a child the meal of great joy. The problem with the Happy Meal is that the happy wears off, and they need a new fix. No child discovers lasting happiness in just one: “Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there!” Happy Meals bring happiness only to McDonalds. Have you ever wondered why Ronald McDonald wears that grin? Twenty billion Happy Meals, that’s why. When you get older, you don’t get any smarter; your happy meals just get more expensive.226 Yet, we must always remember satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.
Solomon closes out this chapter in 6:10-12 with some sobering words: “Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is. For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?” Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, there are numerous allusions to Genesis. Solomon loved to draw upon the book of beginnings. This text is held together by the fourfold use of the catchword “man” (adam), here used not merely as a generic for human beings but as a term that points back to Genesis 2-3. Ecclesiates 6:10 (“Whatever exists has already been named”) does not refer to the divine naming of all things at creation; it is a literary allusion to Adam’s naming of all living things in Gen 2:19. The noun adam looks back to the substance from which humanity came, the adama (“soil”), and so draws attention to human mortality. The participle “known” alludes to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the place at which Adam discovered that he could not contend with God and win. Adam contended with one “stronger” than he in an attempt to become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Adam was in effect the first “Teacher.” He sought an encyclopedic mastery of knowledge (cf. Eccl 1:13) and even experimented with firsthand experience in good and evil (cf. Eccl 1:17). What he discovered was his own mortality and weakness before God. That is, he discovered the real meaning of his own name.
No sage, however brilliant or daring, has substantially added to Adam’s discovery. Indeed, more exhaustive attempts at explaining the human situation only confound the facts and are of no benefit to humanity (6:11). Adam has already shown us what we are. The question in 6:12: “For who knows what is good” for adam, plays on the situation of Adam prior to the fall. The trees had “good” fruit, and the land had “good” gold (Gen 2:9, 12). It also plays on the name of the tree of his demise, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s days, though they numbered 930 years (Gen 5:5), passed like a shadow and no one could tell him what was to follow him. What is true of him is equally true of all who bear his name. We are but weak mortals before an omnipotent God.227
Therefore, we need to learn to be submissive to our great God, for He alone knows the end from the beginning. He is the only sovereign. God is the potter; we are the clay. More arguing only results in more futility for man (6:11). Man does not know what is best for him or what his future holds completely (6:12). We are ignorant of our place in God’s all-inclusive plan. Human life is fleeting, it is like a shadow.228 It is futile to fight with God; He always wins. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) said it well, “Your arms are too short to box with God.”229 Or as C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) said, “To argue with God is to argue with the very power that makes it possible to argue at all.” Disputing is a waste of time and effort. So long as I fight the hand of God, I do not learn the lessons He is attempting to place before me. When I find myself getting anxious about my life, it is usually because the horizontal has overshadowed the vertical. I have momentarily lost sight of who is still on the throne.230
What if a person visited your house and started to criticize things? She doesn’t like the colorful wallpaper, she doesn’t like the decorations, she doesn’t like the picture that hangs over the kitchen table. Once she is finished with her criticism, only one comment is appropriate. “Whose name is on the title deed of this house? When you start paying the bills around here, you get a vote on the decorating. Until then, feel free to keep your opinions to yourself.”231
This does not mean that we can never ask God a “why” question; however, I would strongly caution you to remember who it is you are talking to! Notice there are two questions introduced with “who” in 6:11 and 12. Solomon is implying that there is a “who” who holds the universe and its philosophical questions. He is leading us to the conclusion that satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.
Ray Charles was once baited by a 60 Minutes interviewer with a question about the inequity between his earnings and those of white entertainers. The question had overtones of racism and would’ve tugged at the heart of any man who was greedy. Ray’s answer was disarming: “I make a good living. I can only ride in one car at a time, I live in one house at a time, sleep with one woman at a time.” (I trust it was his wife.) Ray was right, and he was also content.232
My three children like certain types of food. If I am scooping them a bowl of ice cream or cutting them a piece of cake, they always ask for more before they have even begun to consume what I have served. My response is always the same: “Before I give you more, you need to eat what you have.” In the same way, before we can expect God to give us more gifts, we must enjoy what we have.
Do you enjoy your life? Are you satisfied with your life? Do you enjoy your spouse, your kids, your work, and your church? If not, pray to God that He will change your perspective. Tragically, you may have believed a lie that you can be and do whatever you want. Is that true? Can you do whatever you want? I can’t. Can I play in the NBA at 5’10’ with a 2-inch vertical leap? Nope. Can I make myself into a worship leader? Nope. Can I be a supermodel? Well maybe. Okay, nope! There are certain things that I simply cannot do. I am limited by God in some areas and blessed by Him in other areas. Yet, here’s what I can do: I can be satisfied with my wife, my kids, my ministry, because God has enabled me to be satisfied with all those things. Without His enabling me to be satisfied, I would never fully enjoy anything. But when I look beyond this world to the God who knows me and loves me, I find true and lasting satisfaction.
Psalm 16:11; 37:4; 73:25-26
Psalm 102:11; 109:23; 144:4
Job 9:9; 14:2
Isaiah 45:9-12; Daniel 4:35
1. Do I enjoy the wealth, children, long life, and blessings God has given me (6:1-6)? Answer this question honestly before God: Where does my supreme joy and satisfaction reside? What things in my life am I holding too tightly these days? Has God been asking me to let go? What must happen for me to loosen my grip?
2. How do I include God in the various roles and responsibilities of my life? To what extent is He a true priority? In what ways does God provide meaning to my work, marriage, family, possessions, ministry, and personal interests?
3. Am I satisfied or dissatisfied with what God has given me in this life (6:7-9)? Why am I restless? What motivates me to do what I do on a daily basis? How important is my job to my self-image? Have I looked to my work to satisfy the needs of my soul? When I have success who receives the credit?
4. List the ways this chapter teaches the sovereignty of God (6:10-12). Does the thought of God’s hand ruling over my life comfort me? Can I accept the fact that I am not sovereign and all-knowing but still trust in the God who knows me and loves me?
5. Will I recognize how fleeting and temporal this life is (6:12)? Read Psalm 39:4-6; 90:10-12; and James 4:13-17. What will I do this week to live in light of eternity?
6. Do I know the meaning of life and what will happen when I die? Can I explain the good news of Jesus Christ to another person? Does my life exude hope and purpose to my family members, coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances? If not, why not? How can I become a more contagious Christian?
201 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
202 Preaching Now (5-2-06) Vol. 5 No. 16.
203 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993),
204 For the most part, as is the case here, the author records raah to indicate adversity, calamity, distress, trouble, misfortune, or the like (Eccl 2:21; 5:12 [twice], 15; 7:14, 15; 8:6, 11; 9:12 [twice]; 10:5, 13; 11:2, 10; 12:1, 11). If we understand this word to be pointing to a moral or spiritual deficiency, then we are suggesting that God’s work (in 6:2)—and thus He Himself—is in some way “sinful.” This is heresy! Rather, there seems to be some continuity with what Solomon has expressed in Eccl 2:18; 4:8; and 5:13-17.
205 Jas 1:17 tells us that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
208 Bing, “Be Wise with Your Wealth.”
209 See Eccl 2:24-26; 3:12, 13, 22; 5:18-20; 7:7-9.
210 See Eccl 1:3; 3:9; 5:16; 6:11.
211 See Eccl 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12.
212 See Eccl 12:13.
213 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 138.
214 Job 3:16 and Psalm 58:8 also refer to instances where it would have been better off to have been stillborn; this was a figurative way to express evil, experienced at its worst.
215 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 106.
216 Paul writes, “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment” (1 Tim 6:6).
217 See Pss 127 and 128.
218 See Isa 14:18-19 and Jer 22:18-19.
219 Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992); Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
220 Prov 16:31a and 20:29b.
221 See Prov 3:16.
222 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 139.
223 Constable suggests, “This 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 closes the section of the book dealing with the ultimate futility of human achievement (1:12-6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf.
224 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 87.
225 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
226 John Ortberg, Dangers, Toils & Snares: Resisting the Hidden Temptations of Ministry (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1994), 99-100.
227 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,
228 See Eccl 8:13; 1 Chron 29:15; Job 9:9; 14:2; Pss 102:11; 109:23; 144:4.
229 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 164.
230 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality (Waco, TX: Word, 1985), 183.
231 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 164-165.
232 Schmidt, Soul Management,115-116.
Have you ever been engaged? Are you currently engaged? If so, you understand the importance of an engagement ring—a “rock!” Jewelers talk about “the four C’s”—cut, clarity, color, and carat. These four variables are used to calculate the value of a diamond. I have always found the first variable—cut—the most interesting. “Cut” refers to the proportions, finish, symmetry, and polish of the diamond. These factors determine the brilliance of a diamond. Well-cut diamonds sell at a premium and poorly cut diamonds sell at discounted prices. The premise behind this variable is the more a diamond is cut, the more it sparkles. And what woman doesn’t want an engagement ring that sparkles?
Like a beautiful diamond, character is formed by pressure and polished by friction. A person doesn’t wake up one morning as a man or woman of character. Character doesn’t evolve out of osmosis. Character is developed by adversity or what many have called “the school of hard knocks.” Indeed, there is no education like adversity. Yet, adversity has the potential to create greatness in a person. Thus, Solomon says, “Adversity is better than prosperity.”235 How can this be? Why is adversity better than prosperity? In Eccl 7:1-14, Solomon gives two reasons.
In this passage, we will discover that some of the medicine that tastes the worst has the best cure. Solomon answers the question he raised in 6:12, “For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life?”236 In doing so, he gives seven “better than” proverbs (i.e., proverbs of comparative value) to answer his own question.237 In fact, the word “good/better” appears eleven times in this chapter.238 Hence, the reason for the sermon title, “When Bad is Better.” In the first four verses, Solomon suggests that there is much to be gained by sober reflection on sorrow and death. In 7:1a he writes, “A good239 name is better than a good ointment.” This section starts by establishing that a good name (i.e., reputation) is better than a good ointment (i.e., perfume or cologne).240 To make it more relevant, a good name is better than Euphoria or Giorgio. The point of this proverb is: The character of one’s reputation is more valuable and enduring than the scent of perfume. A good name can live beyond the grave,241 but the scent of perfume ceases to linger. We could say, “Who we are is more important than what we have or do not have!”
I grew up watching Kyle Rote, Jr. play soccer. Kyle’s father is Kyle Rote, Sr., who was an all-pro NFL player in the 1950s. He was the captain of the New York Giants for ten years. What is so fascinating is after Rote’s death, Kyle Jr., said of all the compliments and awards his dad had received, one stood above the rest: fourteen of the elder Rote’s former teammates named their sons Kyle.242 The reputation of Kyle Rote, Sr. was so impressive that his teammates wanted to name their boys after him. The Rotes are a Christian family that has a legacy that outlives their earthly lives.
What about you? As a husband and a father what is your reputation at work, in the neighborhood, in your church…or most importantly in your home? Are you a man of integrity? Are you seeking to be exemplary in every area of your life? Are you an inspiration to young men and your peers? Does your name mean something? I tell my boys, “You are Krell boys. Live up to your name. Do your mother and me proud. Most importantly, do your Savior proud and live up to your name ‘Christian.’”
Solomon concludes 7:1 by saying, “And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.”
There are two days in our lives when our name is prominent: the day we receive our name, at birth, and the day our name appears in the obituary column. What happens between those two days determines whether our name is a lovely ointment or a foul stench.243 Solomon is not buying into the philosophy of despair. If that were true, he wouldn’t tell us eight times in his book to enjoy life.244 Ecclesiastes says that we must neither be hesitant to talk about death, nor scoff at it. Rather, we should talk about it forthrightly, for it is the inevitable prospect we all face, and its effects are devastating if we are unprepared.
Have you ever noticed the way we mark a person’s life span? We will write a person’s name, and below it will put something like this: 1934–2008. We list the year of birth and a year of death. Between the two is what? A dash. Solomon might agree that this life is a quick dash between birth and death—just a vapor. All we will ever do on earth, all the influence we will ever garner, all the reputation we will ever build is summarized in a simple line between one year and another. It’s not much time to serve God, but plenty of time for making a huge mess of things.245 Adversity is better than prosperity.
Solomon continues his wise words in 7:2:“It is better to go to a house246 of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” Solomon suggests that we would be better off going to a funeral than a party.247 The reason he gives is that death is “the end of every man.”248 I have some bad news for you. You are going to die. I have checked the death rate in Thurston County and it is a whopping 100%. You are going to die. Neither jogging, nor liposuction, nor all the brown rice in China can keep you young forever. Death is the destiny of every man. The wise person has come to terms with the brevity of life. He doesn’t live as though life on earth will last forever. Wise people go to funerals and pay attention. Wise people see the Tsunami horrors and watch and think carefully. Wise people study cancer victims. Wise people number their days and make the most of their time.249
If you were to visit old churches in New England, you would notice that many of them have a cemetery in the churchyard. The windows in the sanctuary are filled with clear rather than stained glass so that the pastor would see the graveyard as he preached. As he communicated his message to the congregation, a very serious message was being communicated to him. Two hundred fifty years ago, Christians believed that the central mission of the church was to bring men and women into a right relationship with God. That’s why they constructed their church buildings with see-through windows. They wanted their pastors to be continually reminded of the seriousness of their calling. Everyone who sat in the pews before them each Sunday would eventually fill a place in the cemetery and ultimately stand before God to be judged.250
This is why I have said for many years that I would rather do a funeral any day than a wedding. Now you may think I am morbid, and you’re probably right, but I see here in Ecclesiastes some biblical basis for my viewpoint. To be honest, one of the reasons I prefer funerals is a selfish one. As a preacher I appreciate it when people listen, and believe me, people listen much better at funerals than at weddings.251 But aside from that, funerals remind us that life is short and we need to think seriously about our lives.
In 7:3-4 Solomon writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter,252 for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Although most of us would prefer laughter and pleasure, Solomon informs us that there are benefits to sorrow and mourning. This life is full of sadness and sorrow,253 yet life’s difficulties have the potential to awaken a spiritual dimension in us. Sorrow makes us think about life, its meaning, and our priorities. A party rarely does. Sorrow and suffering often brings one to God, while pleasure seldom does.254 Even these sad times give us hope, peace, and strength for there is a mellowing and maturing that takes place in affliction and sorrow that cannot be attained any other way.255 Solomon is not condemning happiness, just the opposite, he is advocating an appropriate peace and contentment that is not based on temporal circumstances alone. Adversity is better than prosperity.
Imagine reading your own obituary. Alfred Nobel had that opportunity. Around the turn of the 20th century, Nobel’s brother passed away. Alfred picked up his morning paper the next day to see what was written about his brother and was stunned to discover his own obituary! The paper mistakenly printed that Alfred had died, describing him as the inventor of dynamite. Nobel realized the legacy he was leaving was associated with death and destruction. Alfred had a second chance to rewrite his legacy. With input from friends, he decided to invest some of his wealth to honor those who furthered the cause of peace in the world. Today many know that Nobel invented dynamite, but he is better known for another of his creations—the Nobel Peace Prize.
You are going to leave a legacy. Your life will have a lasting impact. God has given you the capacity to think carefully about what will be left in the wake of your life and to live intentionally to leave behind something eternally worthwhile.256 I challenge you to create a eulogy you would like offered at your funeral. First, write up your present eulogy. At this point in my life, what would my wife say? My kids? My coworkers? My neighbors? God? Now write up your future eulogy. By God’s grace, what might my eulogy ideally say?257 Adversity is better than prosperity.
During World War II, the Japanese attacked allied forces using “kamikaze” pilots. These pilots, who believed in the Shinto philosophy of honorable death in battle, would commit suicide by flying their bomb-laden planes into allied sea targets. A television documentary showed the kamikaze pilots as they climbed into their planes. Once they were situated, workers would permanently seal the cockpits closed, prior to their departure. The planes were given only enough fuel for a one-way journey from the ship to the target. The fate of the kamikaze pilots was sealed before they left the ground. It’s hard not to wonder what must have been going through the minds of the young soldiers. Certainly they must have thought about what was going to happen to them, but I can imagine that they bravely shut out any inkling of death from their minds, choosing instead to focus on the mission at hand. How closely this seems to parallel our lives. We are, in a sense, kamikazes too. Our being has been permanently sealed inside of our bodies and we’ve only been given enough fuel to make it for a hundred or so years—if we’re blessed. Death awaits us all, but we—perhaps like kamikaze pilots—choose not to think about it, but rather the mission at hand: that big project at work…our vacation plans for next month…that term paper due on Tuesday. So many things on our minds, we really haven’t time to think about death—and besides, who wants to think about it anyway? But failing to think about death usually means failing to think about life.258
[Adversity stimulates an eternal perspective, but as we shall see…]
This second section reminds us that God loves us too much to let us remain as we are. In 7:5-6 Solomon writes, “It is better to listen to the rebuke259 of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot, so is the laughter260 of the fool;261 and this too is futility.”262Solomon likens the meaningless praise and laughter of fools to “the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot.” This was a culturally relevant comparison that we don’t readily understand. Branches of a thorn bush thrown on a fire will flame up with rapid intensity, providing a short hot burn. If you needed to heat up something quickly instead of preparing a fire for slow cooking, you would throw thorn branches on the fire. Solomon uses his illustration to say that the praise of fools is quick, hot, showy—but gone quickly. It flames up, dies out, and you need something else to stoke the fire. The rebuke of a wise man, however, can change your life forever.263
In the past few months, my wife has been helping me work through some of my weaknesses. Lori has the gift of discernment so she has God-given insight into my life. Since she knows me better than anyone, she also has the ability to help me work through my weaknesses and sins. I can’t imagine not receiving her input. God has used her to speak into my life like no other person. Husbands, are you man enough to welcome a rebuke from your wife? Can you receive a rebuke from the person who loves you the most? If not, why not? If your wife has the courage to lovingly lay you out, why can’t you receive it? Is it your pride? God wants want you to hear from your wife because she may be the only person courageous enough to speak into your life. If you are unmarried, can you receive a loving rebuke from a parent or a friend? Are you teachable with your dad or mom? Remember, the ones who brought you into this life love you and want what’s best for you. But you may say, “They sure don’t show it!” That may be the case, but that is not your responsibility. You can’t change other people’s actions, but you can change your reaction. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6b).264 Will you receive a rebuke from a parent or friend? If so, God will mold your character and make you into the man or woman that He wants you to be.
Famous New York Yankee Mickey Mantle tells how as a teenager playing in the minor leagues, he began playing poorly. Growing discouraged, he gave into homesickness and self-pity and tearfully called his father to come and take him home. But when Charles Mantle arrived, he didn’t give the expected sympathy and reassurance. Instead, he looked at his son and said, “Okay, if that’s all the guts you’ve got, you might as well come home with me right now and work in the mines.” It was a stinging slap in the face, but the young man got the message, stuck it out, and went on to make baseball history.265
In 7:7-10 Solomon writes, “For oppression makes a wise man mad [impatient], and a bribe266 corrupts the heart. The end of a matter is better than its beginning;267 patience268 of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit. Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools. Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” The injustice of life causes many people problems, even believers (cf. 4:1; 5:8), if we don’t allow God time to set it straight, and sometimes it is not until the afterlife. It is easy to be discouraged. Oppression rules and reigns in our country and throughout the world. I just heard a report on the news yesterday that young girls are being kidnapped from Washington State to work as prostitutes in other parts of the world—some as young as 12 years old. Business tycoons corrupt politicians and corrupted politicians seek even larger bribes. Government officials, politicians, and pastors sell out. That is the world we live in. This past week, a young man asked me a profound question: “Why do I get madder the more I read the Bible?” The answer is because he is seeing our world from God’s perspective and things aren’t as they are supposed to be. Yet, in these discouraging realities, we need to remember the One who will have the last word. The end of God’s work is even better than its beginning.
This is why Solomon emphasizes patience.269 Our Western society has lost its taste for the long haul. We want everything NOW. We crave instant coffee, fast food, immediate gratification, and instant entertainment. Our computers and our modems are faster and we chaff at the idea of waiting for anything. How many times have I allowed myself to become impatient at another drive or a red light? How many times have I been impatient with my wife or children? How many times have I been impatient with myself or our church? I can think of plenty of times. Yet, Richard Hendrix once said, “Second only to suffering, waiting may be the greatest teacher and trainer in godliness, maturity, and genuine spirituality most of us ever encounter.”270 God is interested in character development so He will test our patience to develop perseverance. He frequently does this because life is a marathon, not a sprint. God is building patience in us so that we will go the distance in our marriage, ministry, and Christian life.
However, humans without a sense of God’s presence and purpose in one’s daily life often seek peace, but reflect on positive circumstances in the past! Bruce Springsteen used to have a song called, “Glory Days.” Yet, the truth is the person who laments the passing of the “good old days” does not remember them very well.271 Instead, we should have the attitude, “I would not trade today for anything! These are the days God has given me. I want to live for today.”272Adversity is better than prosperity.
In 7:11-12 Solomon writes, “Wisdom along with an inheritance is good and an advantage to those who see the sun. For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, but the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.” Prosperity can be a good thing if the prosperous person behaves wisely. Solomon states that both prosperity and wisdom are literally “shadows” that offer protection.273 The superiority of wisdom, however, is that it guides one through difficult times and thus preserves life. Money, to the contrary, often vanishes in hard times.274 So prioritize biblical wisdom, which Solomon says, elsewhere, is “the fear of God” (Prov 1:7).
Our passage concludes in 7:13-14 with these powerful words: “Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent? In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him.”
Solomon explains that we cannot understand why God uses adversity and prosperity as He does.275 God “bends” certain things and there is nothing we can do about it. Affliction is the appointment of God.276 It is generally futile to try to figure such things out; we can’t straighten what God has made crooked. There are “crooked” things we cannot straighten, and we must learn to believe and say, “God, you are God. You are good and powerful. I trust you. I believe in you. And even though I don’t like some of the things that come from your hand, I think I accept them with joy.” God does not waste sorrow or adversity. He knows the purpose for which we go through tragedy and sorrow. It is for our good, and the good of His kingdom.
A man or woman of faith trusts God. Therefore, when times are good, be happy. Enjoy what you have. Don’t waste the opportunity by trying to accumulate more. Don’t wait for retirement. Enjoy now. One of the saddest things in life is the fact that when our children are young and most enjoyable we fathers tend to be busier than ever, establishing ourselves in business and preparing for the children’s future. Unfortunately, too often, by the time we have their college education secured they are gone and there’s little opportunity to enjoy them. When times are good, be happy. But when times are bad, be patient. Be patient because the same God who made the good times has allowed the bad. Neither situation is outside of His sovereignty and there is no sure way of knowing what’s coming next. Try as we might, we cannot prepare for all contingencies, and while God expects us to be prudent, He does not want us to play God. There are times when you just have to play the cards which you have been dealt. Remember that it is God who is the dealer. What you have has been given by Him. Adversity is better than prosperity.
You may be familiar with the story of Job—the man who lived out Murphy’s Law. He lost his health, his wealth, and his children. He had it so bad that his own wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). But Job said to her, “‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Adversity is better than prosperity.
A wise old Chinese woodcutter lived on the troubled Mongolian border. One day his favorite horse, a beautiful white mare, jumped the fence and was seized on the other side by the enemy. His friends came to comfort him. “We’re so sorry about your horse,” they said. “That’s bad news.” “How do you know it’s bad news?” he asked. “It might be good news.” A week later, the man looked out his window to see his mare returning at breakneck speed—beside a beautiful stallion. He put both horses into the enclosure, and his friends came to admire the new addition. “What a beautiful horse,” they said. “That’s good news.” “How do you know it’s good news?” replied the man. “It might be bad news.” The next day, the man’s only son decided to try the stallion. It threw him, and he landed painfully, breaking his leg. The friends made another visit, all of them sympathetic, saying, “We’re so sorry about this. It’s such bad news.” “How do you know it’s bad news?” replied the man. “It might be good news.” Within a month, war erupted between China and Mongolia. Chinese recruiters came through the area, pressing all the young men into the army. All of them perished, except for the woodcutter’s son, who couldn’t go off to war because of his broken leg. “You see,” said the woodcutter. “The things you considered good were actually bad, and the things that seemed bad were actually good.”277
1 Thessalonians 4:13
Proverbs 15:13; 22:1
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
1. What are the advantages of death, mourning, and sorrow (7:1-4)? How do these sobering realities shape my perspective? If I died today, what phrase would sum up my life so far? What issues have dominated my time lately? Which ones will really matter 1,000 years from now? How can I spend more time and energy focusing on the eternal?
2. When was the last time I was rebuked by someone I know (7:5-6)? How did I respond? When in my life have the “wounds of a friend” proved to be faithful and beneficial? Read Proverbs 27:6; cf. Psalm 141:5 and Proverbs 20:30. Which is harder for me: to rebuke a friend or to be rebuked by a friend? How can I grow in my confrontation skills?
3. What types of situations make me impatient or angry (7:8-9)? Would an objective person say that I have a problem with anger? How have I reacted foolishly in my anger? How can I learn to control my ungodly anger? Read James 1:19.
4. How has God used suffering in my life to improve my character? What is the worst trial I have ever encountered? How did God mature me through this ordeal? Read Romans 8:28-29. How has God used me to comfort or encourage someone else as a result of my suffering? Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
5. If I could change one situation in my own life right now, what would it be? If I could ask one question about my future, what would it be? Do I truly believe that God has ordained my hard times as well as my good times? When I face suffering and hardship in the future, how will I respond? What will enable me to trust God in these difficult experiences?
233 This title came from Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002).
234 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
235 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 80, 82.
236 The last two rhetorical questions of Eccl 6:12 are answered in 7:1-14 (6:12a is answered in 7:1-12 and 6:12b is linked to 7:13-14 by the phrase, “after him.”
237 It is important to remember that proverbs, by their very nature, are not intended to be absolute, unalterable principles but generalized observations on life.
238 The word “good,” often translated “better” links chapters 6 and 7 together (cf. 6:3, 9, 12 and 7:1[twice], 2, 3, 5, 8[twice], 10, 11, 14, 18, 20, 26.
239 Davis notes, “Of the 52 occurrences of the word tob (good, better, prosperity, happy, pleasing) in the Book of Ecclesiastes, 14 (i.e., approximately 27%) appear in chapter 7 (with 11 of those 14 being recorded in the verses 1 to 14). No other chapter in the Book of Ecclesiastes (or in the rest of Scripture) contains more than 7 occurrences of this word (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 119; and Ecclesiastes 9, for the only other chapters in Scripture containing at least 7 occurrences of the word tob [good]).” Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
240 Solomon utilizes a play on words with the Hebrew words for name (shem) and ointment (shemen).
241 Prov 22:1 says, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth.”
242 Preaching Today citation: Kansas City Star (8-16-02); submitted by Kirtes Calvery, Raytown, MO.
243 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 163.
244 In Solomon’s book of Proverbs, there are at lease thirty verses emphasizing the goodness of enjoying life (e.g., Prov 15:13, 15; 17:22). Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 162.
245 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 164.
246 “House of…” is a Semitic idiom (cf. 7:4, i.e., Bethel, Bethlehem).
247 Jesus said something similar in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are they that mourn” (Matt 5:4).
248 The noun “end” (soph) is used only five times in the OT and three of them are in Ecclesiastes (3:11; 7:2; 12:13).
249 The Psalmist declares, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
250 Haddon W. Robinson, “Ecclesiastes 7:1-4: Funeral or Birthday?” Daily Bread:
251 Michael P. Andrus, “The Tests of Adversity and Prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-29): unpublished sermon notes.
252 Here, as often in the Proverbs written by Solomon, the author stretches a point to make a point. Certainly sorrow is not always better than laughter, nor is a sad face always good for the heart. Solomon himself says the opposite in Prov 15:13: “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face” and in Prov 17:22 he wrote, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”
253 Job 5:7: “For man is born for trouble as sparks fly upward.”
254 Cf. Matt 5:1; 2 Cor 7:10.
255 God may have to break us in order to make us. Reproof is one proof of God’s love. Jesus, the perfect man, is described as “a man of sorrows,” intimately acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). It is hard to fathom, but even the incarnate Son of God learned and grew through the heartaches He suffered (Heb 5:8). As we think about His sorrow and His concern for our sorrow, we gain a better appreciation for what God is trying to accomplish in us, through the grief we bear.
256 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 129.
257 Schmidt, Soul Management, 135.
258 Tim A. Krell, “Thoughts about Life” (Eccl 7),” Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life: an unpublished paper, 3/1/1996.
259 See Solomon’s words in Prov 15:31-32 and 17:10: “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding…A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.”
260 The term “laughter” (sechoq) is used often in Ecclesiastes (cf. 2:2; 3:4; 7:3, 5, 6). It is used metaphorically of the person who seeks instant gratification. It denotes life that focuses on the pleasure of this life in an existential moment, but does not ponder the “lasting benefit.”
261 The simile portrays the fool as both worthless (like thorns) and about to be destroyed (burning under a pot). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
262 There is another play on the Hebrew words pot (shir) and thorns (sir).
263 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 172.
264 The Psalmist writes, “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head” (Ps.141:5a).
265 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 173.
266 This is not the normal word for “bribe” (mattanah; cf. Exod 23:8; Deut 16:19), but is the word “gift,” used in a specialized sense (cf. Prov 15:27).
267 This may be a summary statement of Eccl 7:2 related to 7:1 about a good name which is acquired with time and must be maintained. Often we judge something or someone too quickly and are disappointed.
268 This is often used in Proverbs for a person slow to anger (cf. 14:29; 15:18; 16:21; 19:11). However, its most common usage describes Yahweh’s merciful character (cf. Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Nah 1:3).
269 There is also a correlation between impatience and a tendency toward anger. Impatient people are prone to anger. And an angry person is a foolish person. This brings us to the following progression:
Pride ® Impatience ® Anger ® Foolishness
The opposite is also true. Humility leads ultimately to wisdom.
Humility ® Patience ® Peace ® Wisdom
See John Stevenson, “The Better and the Best” (Eccl 7:1-14): http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/eccl07-01.html.
270 Preaching Today citation: Richard Hendrix, Christian Reader, Vol. 31
271 Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 95.
272 The Psalmist said, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).
273 This is the Hebrew word for “shadow,” which offers protection in the desert (e.g., Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:1, 4). The term “shadow” was used in the sense of brevity in Eccl 6:12, but here in the sense of God’s personal presence and protection.
274 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
275 Throughout the Scriptures God acknowledges that He sovereignly permits everything (good and bad) to occur. In the beginning, God created darkness and light and He continues to allow disaster as well as prosperity (Isa 45:7).
276 Eccl 7:13 harkens back to the insoluble problem of 1:15. Here, however, the point is that God is in control of the times, and nothing can be done to resist His will. Verse 14 clarifies that this is to be understood in an economic context. God brings both prosperity and recession. When times are good, one should enjoy the prosperity; when times are bad, one should reflect on the fact that this too is from God’s hand. God does not allow us to know whether tomorrow will bring unexpected wealth or sudden calamity, but we can find peace if we accept all as from God (see Lam 3:38).
277Nelson’s Completes Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 653-54.
A young man loaned an acquaintance $500, but failed to get the borrower’s signature on a receipt. When the guy hadn’t paid him back a year later, he realized he had probably lost the money due to lack of proof. He asked his father what to do. “The answer is simple,” his father said. “Just write him and say you need the $1,000 you loaned him.” “You mean $500,” his son replied. “No, you need to say $1,000. He’ll immediately write back that he only owes you $500, and then you’ll have it in writing!”279
This father provided wise counsel and his son was able to receive profitable words in writing. Similarly, our heavenly Father provides wise counsel and we can read His profitable words in the writings of the Bible. And who can’t benefit from a bit more wisdom? In Eccl 7:15-29 Solomon says, “Wise up by going low.” By this he means biblical wisdom comes through humility. In this passage, Solomon offers three provisions of wisdom.
In these first four verses, Solomon discusses one of the most prevalent questions of human history: Why do good people suffer and bad people prosper? In 7:15 he writes, “I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility;280 there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.”281The phrase “I have seen everything” is akin to the contemporary expression of disgust, “Now, I’ve seen it all.” Solomon is a bit miffed that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between one’s goodness and one’s lifespan.282 We see this principle alive and well today. We see righteous people die abruptly, and we see wicked fools living for what seems too long. Think about it…Jesus lived to be 33 and Hugh Heffner seems as if he’s going to outlive all of us. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?
It’s easy to agonize over these hazy areas of the faith, like those spots on a sparkling car window that simply won’t come clean. Yet, these hazy areas tell me that God is real, dynamic, and too great for my conception. His ways are higher than mine.283 If there were no hazy areas, Christianity would be too neat, too trite. If I can fully understand God’s thoughts, He would be no more God than I am. Others approach this theological puzzle (and others) with an ultimatum: solve it or God is not real. This is like approaching a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and saying, “If I can’t assemble this in five minutes, I will deny that it’s a picture.” That’s unfair, isn’t it? It’s also irrational. Our inability to work out an answer reflects only on our limitations, not God’s.284 Therefore, it makes sense to trust our loving and powerful God even when He does not think and act like we might want Him to. After all, He sees the end from the beginning. With this in mind, today will you give the Lord whatever intellectual issues that you are struggling with? It’s as simple as saying, “God, I don’t understand what you are doing or why you are doing it, but you are God and I am not so I will trust You.”285Wise up by going low.
Since we can’t possibly understand God’s decisions, Solomon’s conclusion in 7:16-17 is, “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise.286 Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool.287 Why should you die before your time?” These verses have been terribly misunderstood. Some have dubbed these verses “the golden mean,” which suggests we should not be too righteous or too wicked. Rather, we should strike a balance and achieve a happy medium. Yet, if Solomon is telling us to be moderately godly, he is contradicting the Bible which clearly teaches us to seek righteousness and holiness with all that is within us.288 I believe, therefore, Solomon’s concern is not with godly character, but with godly character in one’s own eyes. His point is that we should not depend on our righteousness or wisdom to guarantee God’s blessing in our lives.289 In other words, if you are a particularly righteous person don’t be too confident that you will live to see your 120th birthday. The verb translated “ruin yourself” is better rendered to “be appalled, astounded.”290 Solomon is saying, “Don’t assume that God owes you anything for your righteousness.” If you do, you might be confounded or disappointed like the righteous person who dies at a young age.291
The truth is, no matter how righteous or wise we attempt to be we are still sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace. The apostle Paul understood this. Early in his ministry, he called himself the least of the apostles. Later on he said he was the least of all Christians. Then he said he was the chief of sinners. The older he got, the more he saw of God, the lower he became in his own estimation.292 In the same vein, John Newton, the former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace,” said, “When I get to heaven, I will be amazed at three things. I will be amazed at those I thought would be there who are not there, those I did not think would be there who are there, and the fact that I am there at all.”293
The Chinese are reported to have a saying, “The shoot that grows tall is the first to be cut.”294 Biblically and practically, it makes sense to be humble. There is just too much we don’t understand. There are too many questions, too many tragedies, and too much sin. The only solution is to wise up by going low. But what does this look like practically? It means you take a close look at how you think, speak, and act. When you think of Christian self-righteousness, you most likely think of a person who sees the faults of others, but is oblivious to his or her own condition. Tragically, this may be the most frequently used reason for not becoming a Christian. In the past, I used to dismiss this by saying, “There are hypocrites in every profession and sphere of life.” But now I agree with statements relating to hypocrisy among Christians. I will even acknowledge that I have been guilty of hypocrisy as well. I empathize with people who quote the common bumper sticker, “Jesus, save me from your followers.” Don’t get me wrong, we need to be authentically righteous, but we also need to be especially humble.
Not only is Solomon opposed to self-righteousness, he is also opposed to wickedness. Although we are sinful and will always have remains of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, we need to be careful not to use our sinfulness as an excuse to sin even more. The fact that we aren’t perfect should spur us on toward holiness, not toward moral compromise. It’s easy to see how this line of reasoning might work. “I’ve already told one lie. What difference will another make?” Or “I know I shouldn’t have used foul language, but why stop now?” All such reasoning is evil. Why compound your troubles by continuing to sin? When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If you can’t make things better, at least make sure you don’t make them worse. This applies to all of us because everyone struggles with sin to one degree or another. You don’t have to take another drink, you don’t have to cheat a second time, you don’t have to keep on swearing, and you don’t have to lose your temper over and over again. By the power of God, and with the help of a few good friends, you can stop the patterns of sin and replace them with habits of holiness.295
If we choose to disregard God’s Word and play the fool we may die before our time. The truth is, God does sometimes punish the wicked in this life. There have been times over the course of my life when I have wondered what would happen if I attempted to steer off a cliff while driving my car. I have thought to myself, “Would God send an angel to steer my car away from imminent danger? Would God Himself slam on the brakes before I drove off the cliff? Would He keep my steering wheel from turning in the direction of the cliff?” The answer to these questions is, “NO, NO, NO!” This is not to say that the Lord would not work a miracle, but the odds are against it. If I make a foolish decision, I may pay for it with my life. Young people, please don’t play the fool. One experiment with drugs could end your life. One sexual encounter could cost you dearly. One suicidal attempt could be your last. It’s not worth it. Live in light of eternity. Exercise wisdom and self-control. Wise up by going low.
The final verse of this section is rather interesting. Solomon writes in 7:18, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.” The “one thing” that you are to grasp is the teaching of 7:17. The “other thing” that you are not to let go of is the wisdom of 7:16. In other words, it is good in life to grasp 7:17—don’t be wicked and foolish and blow life; be holy and wise. But at the same time, remember 7:16—you are a finite sinner who can’t control God or even understand what He’s up to. Obey God and what you know. Trust Him in what you don’t.296 Wise up by going low.
[Wisdom provides humility. We will now see…]
In this section, Solomon says,“Wisdom is a strong ally in this fallen world, but it cannot shield believers from pain, injustice, and bad circumstances.” In 7:19 Solomon writes, “Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.” The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (hokmah) refers to “the skill of living.” This involves both a godly perspective and a godly power to live life. Perspective and power are like the two wings on a bird, the two blades of a pair of scissors, or the two sides of a coin. The whole of wisdom doesn’t exist without both perspective and power.297 In 7:19, Solomon states that the wisdom of God is better than surrounding yourself with the ten best men you can find. It’s been said that a man with a Bible could stay in a cave for a year, and at the end of that time, he could know from his reading what everybody else in the world was doing. There is no greater blessing than wisdom. There is no greater activity than walking with God and revering Him. But watch out that you don’t let your good behavior go to your head.298
The reason for such humility is found in 7:20 where Solomon writes, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.”299 In our fallen state, our entire wills are oriented against God. We are bent on our own ways of evil from the get-go. Augustine said the only reason you think a baby is good is that he hasn’t got the power enough to show you how evil he is. He said, “If a baby had the strength when he emerged from the mother’s womb, he would seize the mother by the throat and demand his milk.” The only way any of us can be saved is if God makes radical change in us from the inside out. So Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Then the Spirit of God changes our nature by abiding with us, keeping us, sanctifying us, and raising us by His power.300
In 7:21-22 we come to some especially relevant and practical words. Solomon is going to tell us that sometimes it pays to be a little hard of hearing. He writes, “Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.” Here Solomon says, “Don’t eavesdrop; don’t listen in on every conversation. Don’t go out of your way to listen to what is being said about you—sooner or later you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear someone cursing you.” Of course, this is particularly distressing when you hear people in the church that you know and love cursing you. In my own pastoral ministry, I have been grieved and shocked by those who have intentionally or unintentionally sought to damage me. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with other Christians. It hurts, doesn’t it? The truth is it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, or what you do, people will fail you. Your best friends will fail you. Your coworkers will fail you. Your pastors will fail you. Your brothers and sisters will fail you. Your parents will fail you. Your spouse will fail you. Your children will fail you. If you live long enough, every one you count on in this life will fail you sooner or later.
How can you cope with the hurtful words that others have said about you? Solomon’s advice to the wise is not to listen to the gossip people say about you, because you know in your heart you have said unkind things about others as well. Let’s be honest. If we get upset when people talk about us, we are holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to, because we are prone to do the same thing. With that said, sometimes a rebuke is in order if the comments are especially divisive. We need to be prepared to lovingly drill a fellow believer between the eyes and say, “Don’t talk about my brother or sister like that.” The reason that gossip and slander continue to go in most churches is that Christians tolerate it. No one ever wants to stick their neck out and call sin “SIN.”
My prayer is that you and I will stand up for others and sit down for ourselves. I am learning to take the destructive words of others toward me with a grain of salt.301 One man said, “I never worry about people who say evil things about me because I know a lot more stuff about me than they do, and it’s worse than what they are saying.”302 Seriously, the key to defusing gossip and slander is to humble yourself and not take yourself too seriously.303Wise up by going low.
[Wisdom provides humility and strength. Now we will see that…]
In this final section, Solomon warns of the danger of foolishness. Yet, the implication is that wisdom can win the day through humility. In 7:23-24 Solomon writes, “I tested all this with wisdom, and I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it?” In these two verses, Solomon discovered that he could not discover. Although he sought after wisdom with all diligence, he acknowledged that true wisdom was far beyond him. He continued in 7:25 by writing, “I directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness.” Literally this is, “I myself turned my heart.”304 The ancients thought “the heart” was the center of thinking, reasoning, and feeling. Maybe we would say “he got his mind around an issue.” The search was sincere, thorough, and intensive. God has put in our hearts the desire “to know,” but it is beyond our current fallen ability. The desire probably comes from our being made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27), but sin has damaged our ability (cf. Gen 3). Yet, we still seek, search, yearn, and strive! This is to be commended, but it must be acknowledged that we are incredibly limited. We desperately need the Lord to reveal His thoughts and ways to us. Today, will you ask the Lord for His mind and heart? Will you ask for His insight? Wise up by going low.
So did Solomon discover anything? In 7:26 he writes, “And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.” There is some mystery surrounding the identity of this woman. Some understand this woman to be a prostitute or an adulterer.305 The application then is to avoid sexual sin. I believe, however, that this woman is the personification of that wickedness which is folly itself. She is the “strange woman” of Proverbs 1-9.306 The antecedent of “the woman” is folly (7:25), a Hebrew feminine noun that also has an article. This conclusion seems corroborated by the allusions in 7:26 to the tactics of folly who tries to lure one away from wisdom’s embrace.307 The point is: Foolishness is like a seductive woman, so beware for she will lead you to your demise. Be like a wise person who refuses to be captured by her. Use discretion as you travel this life. Choose your friends wisely. Bad company corrupts good morals.308 Guard your intake of television and movies. Don’t watch programming that will tear you down in your walk with Christ.
The mysterious words continue in 7:27-29 where Solomon writes, “Behold, I have discovered this,’ says the Preacher, ‘adding one thing to another to find an explanation, which I am still seeking but have not found. I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all these. Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.’” These verses lead us to ask whether Solomon was a chauvinist or a misogynist. Yet, when we read Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, we know that this is not the case.309 In fact, in Proverbs, Solomon often personifies wisdom as a woman. So let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Solomon isn’t making a relative comparison as to the worth of men and women in general. That wouldn’t be fair and his conclusion wouldn’t be right. Furthermore, remember that with 1,000 women Solomon was the consummate ladies man.310 He’s not going to jeopardize his relationship with women, right?
The “man” in view in 7:28 is the “one who is pleasing to God” in 7:26. The Hebrew word for “man” here (adam) is generic and refers to people rather than males in contrast to females. Solomon meant in 7:28b that a person who is pleasing to God is extremely rare (cf. Job 9:3; 33:23). The reference to “woman” (7:28c) is a way of expressing in parallelism (with “man”) that no one really pleases God completely. A paraphrase of 7:28b-c is, “I have found very few people who please God, no one at all really.”311 This interpretation is confirmed by 7:29 where Solomon demonstrates the scarcity—even nonexistence—of good people, whether man or woman. That the parallelism of man and woman in 7:28 describes all humankind is corroborated by 7:29—a probable reference to the creation and fall of “mankind.”312
Verse 29 asserts two truths from Genesis: Initially, all of God’s creation was good.313 Humans can understand and implement God’s will. Fallen humans are creative and energetic in the area of evil and rebellion.314 Though morally capable, humans turn from God’s will to self-will at every opportunity! Even though we seek righteousness, we need to remember that no matter how good we get, we are still sinful—every last one of us—men and women both. We need to remember that no matter how good we get, the only reason people tolerate us is that we have learned how to tame our public evil as opposed to our private evil. Does that disturb you about yourself? Here it is again: The only reason that you’re a likable person is that you have learned to distinguish between your public and private obnoxiousness, and you are smart enough to keep your lustful, hateful, wicked thoughts contained in your brain. In your public treatment of people, you have remained basically hygienic and nonviolent.315 I know this is a hard word, but don’t get mad at me; I’m just the mailman. I just deliver the mail.
So who is responsible for the universal failure to please God? Solomon said people are, not God. God made us upright in the sense of being able to choose to please or not please God. Nevertheless, in 7:29 we have all gone our own way in pursuit of “many devices.”316 The point is not that people have turned aside to sin, but that they have sought out many explanations.317 They have sought many explanations of what? In the context Solomon was talking about God’s plan. Failing to understand fully God’s scheme of things, people have turned aside to their own explanations of these things.
Solomon closes out this section in 8:1 with a transitional verse: “Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter? A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.” Wisdom provides insight. Wisdom will bring illumination and a smile to your face. How can you get wisdom? The primary way is by reading and heeding God’s Word. This morning, I was reading Proverbs 6. (I like to read one proverb for every day of the month.) This is what I read in 6:16-19: “There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.” The first item that God hates is “haughty eyes.” God hates pride and self-righteousness. The fourth item is “a heart that devises wicked plans.” This summarizes the whole of foolishness and wickedness. The last item on this list is God hates it when “one spreads strife among brothers.” This ties back into Eccl 7:21-22. If you and I want to be wise ones, we will study God’s Word and then apply it to our lives. As Solomon said in Prov 1:7: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” May we heed these words and wise up by going low.
1 Kings 21:1-14
1 Corinthians 3:18-20
2 Samuel 20:14-22
1. What “good” people do I know personally who died too young (7:15)? What “evil” people lived much too long? Why would God permit such a travesty of moral justice? How will I respond to the question, “Why do only the good die young?”
2. Why is it easier for me to have a higher opinion of myself than I should (7:16-18)? How do I struggle with pride and self-righteousness? What are some of the motivations that lie behind this? How can I cultivate a humble heart before God and others? Read Luke 18:9-14.
3. In what area(s) of my life do I need wisdom as a source of strength (7:19)? How can I learn to rely upon the Lord for His strength instead of my own? Why is there such a temptation to be independent? How can I break this habit? Read John 15:1-5.
4. When have I been infuriated by someone’s sin against me (7:21-22)? Does it help to remember that I have also sinned against others? Why or why not? Am I angry at someone because they failed me? In what ways have I failed others? How can I learn to control my tongue? How have I owned my sin? Have I confessed my gossip, slander, and bitterness to God and others? Read Matthew 12:36.
5. How many truly wise people do I know? What character qualities do they share? What keeps me from being labeled a “wise” man or woman? How can I grow so that I become biblically wise?
278 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
280 The term “futility” (hebel) means “vapor” or “breath,” but in Ecclesiastes it is used metaphorically to describe the transitoriness and meaninglessness of human, earthly life.
281 Eaton writes, “The introduction of a vertical perspective does not nullify the overall problem: life remains subject to vanity. The Preacher aims neither to abolish nor even to explain life’s anomalies, but to enable one to live with them. It is a simple fact that the righteous may, like Naboth (1 Ki. 21:13), perish in his righteousness, whereas the wickedness of a Jezebel (1 Ki. 18-19) may persist. The anomaly frequently perplexed the devout Israelite (cf. Jb.; Pss. 37; 73; Hab. 1:13-17). The blunt statement with no explanation (except perhaps 7:29) demands simply that the believer face life in this world as it really is. Forewarned is forearmed (cf. 1 Pet 4:12).” Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 113.
282 While it is certainly true that “the fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Prov 10:27), Solomon has seen some galling exceptions. Therefore, he urges us not to claim that we are better than we are.
283 Isa 55:8-9 states, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”
284 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 200.
285 It would also be worth reading Kenneth Boa, God, I Don’t Understand: Answers to Difficult Questions of the Faith (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2007).
286 See also Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 86.
287 Instead of saying, “Do not be overly foolish,” Solomon merely declares: “do not be a fool.” By doing so, he seems to be suggesting that a person is either a fool or he/she is not a fool (i.e., there are no degrees of being a fool). Furthermore, trying too hard to become something—whether “good” or “bad”—does not accomplish lasting success. “Trying too hard” merely breeds frustration and an emptiness because the effort takes place “under the sun” and, for the most part, the success of such an effort is short-lived, perhaps “benefiting” the person only in his/her life “under the sun” and not in his/her eternal life. Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
288 See 2 Cor 7:1; Phil 3:13-14; Heb 12:14.
289 The real clue to this passage is to be found in the second verb of Eccl 7:16, to be wise. This form must be rendered reflexively according to the Hebrew verb form: to think oneself to be furnished with wisdom. As such, it makes the same point as the famous text in Prov 3:7 does, “Be not wise in your own eyes.” Thus it was not the case of having too much righteousness or wisdom; rather, it was the problem of self-delusion and the problem of having a superego that needed to have large doses of humility added. When people become too holy, too righteous and too wise in their own eyes, then they become too holy and too wise for everyone—not in reality, of course, but in their own estimation! Since Eccl 7:17 follows the pattern of 7:16, and since the two verses are part of the same thought, the resulting translation would be: Do not multiply [your] righteousness and do not play the part of the wise [in your own eyes]—why destroy yourself? Do not multiply [your] wickedness and do not be a [downright] fool—why die before your time?” Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 295.
290 The verb tissomem is translated elsewhere in this stem as “to be astonished” (e.g., Ps 143:4; Isa 59:16; 63:5; Dan 8:27), meaning an OT person who had heard the Deuteronomic promises of health, blessing, and prosperity for the obedient covenant partners may be surprised when the unfairness and fallenness of this age takes the life of “righteous” covenant partners early. Also that an obviously wicked person lives a prosperous, long life (cf. Ps 73). See also the NET translation and study notes.
291 Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 994.
292 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 115.
293 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 114-115.
294 Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 99.
295 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 189.
296 Michael V. Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions, Vol. 18, Bible and Literature Series, ed. by David M. Gunn (Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1989), 236.
297 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 204.
298 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 115.
299 This is an affirmation of the falleness of all humanity (cf. 1 Kgs 8:46; 2 Chron 6:36; Job 15:14-16; 25:4; Ps 130:3-4; 143:2; Prov 20:9; Rom 3:9-18, 23; 1 John 1:8-2:1). Rom 3:10-12 states, “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (NET). See also Ps 14:3; 53:3; Isa 53:6; 64:6; Jer 17:9; Mark 7:21-23.
300 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 118-119.
301 Ricker and Pitkin, Soul Search,101.
302 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 206.
303 Remember Jesus’ words, “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). Elsewhere He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Matt 5:11).
304 The verb “directed” (sabab) is used in Eccl 2:20.
305 Garrett holds that this verse is speaking of the relationship between a husband and wife in Gen 3:16. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 324-25.
306 See esp. Prov 2:16. This verse seems to be out of context, therefore, some have said “the woman” refers to (1) “godless philosophy” (i.e., wisdom personified, cf. Eccl 7:4; 9:10); (2) the “foolishness” (i.e., the word is Femine) of 7:25; or (3) the sin of Eve (cf. Genesis 3). Proverbs personifies both evil and wisdom in a woman. Option 2 seems to be the best option since wisdom is the dominant theme from Eccl 7:20 to 8:1.
307 See, e.g., Prov 5:3-5; 7:10-27; cf. 2:16-19. David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon: Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), 175-176; Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 271-272.
308 1 Cor 15:33.
309 See Prov 12:4; 14:1; 18:22; and 19:14
310 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 200.
311 Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 22.
312 Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160:639 (July-September 2003): 293.
313 Cf. Gen 1:31. The Lord calls His creation “good” (tob) a total of seven times (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
314 Cf. Gen 3-4; 6:5, 11-13; 11:1-9.
315 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 120.
316 The same Hebrew word translated “devices” (chishshabon) in Eccl 7:29 reads “explanation” in 7:25 and 27.
317 See Isaiah’s words, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa 53:6).
One day, a bus driver was driving along his usual route. He didn’t encounter any problems for the first few stops; a few people got on, a few got off, and things went generally well. At one stop, however, a big hulk of a man got on. He was 6’ 8”, built like a bodybuilder, and his arms hung down to the ground. He glared at the driver and told him, “Big John doesn’t pay!” Then he sat down at the back of the bus. The driver was 5’ 3”, thin, and very meek, so he didn’t argue with Big John. But he wasn’t happy about it. The next day, the same thing happened. Big John got on again, made a big show of refusing to pay, and sat down. It happened the next day, and again the day after that. The bus driver began to lose sleep over the way Big John was taking advantage of him. Finally, he could stand it no longer. He signed up for bodybuilding courses, karate, judo, and a class on finding your self-esteem. By the end of the summer, the bus driver had become quite strong and felt really good about himself. The next Monday, Big John entered the bus and again declared, “Big John doesn’t pay!” Enraged, the driver stood up, glared back at Big John, and bellowed, “And why not?!” With a surprised look on his face, Big John replied, “Big John has a bus pass.”320
This poor bus driver learned a valuable lesson: Things are not always as they appear. In Eccl 8:1-17, Solomon shares that in the midst of life we must trust that God is in control of those things we don’t understand. This requires humility and wisdom. I am reminded of an old country song by Mac Davis, “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” I would suggest, “It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.” In this chapter, Solomon gives two simple tips for living with humility (and wisdom).
In this section, Solomon urges us to respect human authorities. Ironically, Solomon writes these words as the King of Israel. He is a king writing about how to get along with the king. In 8:1a Solomon poses an insightful question: “Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter?” This rhetorical question requires the answer, “No one!” No one is like the wise person who studies the Bible and knows God’s will. Solomon continues in 8:1b by stating: “A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.” Solomon says the wise person is illumined and has so much joy that you can see it on his face. He is not telling us to be wise and fake it; he is saying that we should be joyful, no matter what the circumstances are.321 What do others see when they look at you? Do you have joy? If not, perhaps it’s because you aren’t soaking in the wisdom of God’s Word. It’s not being integrated into your life and giving you joy. Wisdom brings joy because a person who has biblical wisdom is assured of what is right. There is no greater privilege than understanding where we came from, who we are, where we are going, how sin is removed, and what the will of God is. There is no greater blessing and there is no other place to find these answers than from God in His Word. Solomon begins this chapter by saying that in a world full of questions, it’s wonderful to know the absolutes of life. Some things in life we can’t understand but some things we can understand—what the moral will of God is, who He is, and who we are in Him.322
In 8:2-4, Solomon explains our responsibility to government. Now this may remove the smile from your face; however, God wants us to exercise wisdom and behave appropriately in the presence of our king. In 8:2 Solomon writes, “I say, ‘Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God.” Solomon begins this section with a command: “Keep the command of the king.”323Notice that this obedience is not for the sake of the king. It is for the sake of the One who placed the king on the throne.324 It is “because of the oath before God.” It was the practice in the ancient world that when a king came to the throne, the people of his kingdom were required to swear an oath of obedience to that king.325 Today we do not enter into these kinds of oaths. But we do make commitments to authorities. We pledge allegiance to the country of our citizenship. When we work for an employer, we are bound to obey him until such a time that we leave his employment. At our church, members promise to worship, serve, give, and submit to the leadership. We all make commitments (“oaths”) to various authorities.
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to make commitments or oaths prematurely and then find ourselves unable to fulfill them. God sees this as breaking our oath to Him, not to the king. How you obligate yourself to work, marriage, and church, is a great indication of your character. If you were hasty to get married and now find that you aren’t as motivated to keep your vows as you were in the beginning, realize that God is who you are breaking your oath to. If you make promises to your work in order to get the job, and now you find that you can’t manage to fulfill these promises, remember that God is the One you are offending. If you promise that you will serve at the church and use your gifts for God’s glory, then falter in your promises, remember it is God whom you are breaking your commitment to. Does this mean you should never make vows or promises? No. It means you should be cautious who you obligate yourself to and ensure that when you make obligations, even small ones, God is behind all of it. We ought to remember that any authority under which we find ourselves is a God-ordained authority and should be obeyed. The only exception to this rule is when such an authority commands us to do something that is in opposition to God’s Word. Only then are we to disobey, and then only in that single area.326
Of course, it is not always easy to obey a king. There are times when kings don’t do what we want or expect them to do. This leads Solomon to write in 8:3-4: “Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases.’327 Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’”328The idea here is of abandoning support for a leader just because he does not do what you wanted or expected him to do. Earlier in Eccl 4:13-16, Solomon discussed how a king’s popularity can quickly evaporate. Someone new comes along and the people throng to his side abandoning the present leader. Solomon says that wisdom should slow this down and will use caution in leaving a leader. This is also relevant in other areas of our lives. It is easy to become disenchanted with your spouse and assume that if you leave your current spouse you can be happier with a new spouse. It is easy to become disillusioned at church by pastors or those in leadership. Most people immediately threaten to leave, assuming that they will not have these types of frustrations at other churches. This principle also applies to our jobs. The greener grass syndrome is very deceptive. In our attempt to escape our troubles, we may find further grief and pain.
The NIV’s translation of the second clause of 8:3 (“Do not stand up for a bad cause”) captures Solomon’s intent better than does the NASB’s rendering (“Do not join in an evil matter”). The NASB’s interpretation potentially leaves the reader wondering what exactly the “evil matter” is, or perhaps even if the author is urging the reader not to participate together with the king in some jointly executed evil act. By contrast, the NIV’s interpretation of the second clause helps the reader to understand that the prohibited action is one in which an individual joins together with others in an attempt to thwart or contradict some action of the king (or perhaps even to participate in a plot to overthrow the king).329 Solomon warns against acting in opposition to a king because a king does whatever he wants. Furthermore, a king has the right to rule and you do not. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.
In 8:5-7, Solomon brings up the theme of timing when he writes, “He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight,330 though a man’s trouble331 is heavy upon him. If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?” The wise person knows the right time to act (8:5), because there is a right time for every action (8:6). Yet, no one can fully predict when that right time will be, because no one (other than God) knows the future (8:7). Not only are you to obey human authority because God said to do it, you are also to do so because it makes life a lot easier. Generally speaking, when you obey the king’s commands, you don’t get into any trouble with the king.332 This principle has many modern-day corollaries. When you drive the speed limit, you don’t have to worry about speed traps. When you pay your taxes, you aren’t particularly worried about an IRS audit. When you do your work faithfully on the job, it doesn’t concern you that the boss is watching. So save yourself some grief and obey the laws of the land. Not only will you be pleasing the Lord, but you will avoid trouble. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.
This first section closes in 8:8-9. Solomon writes, “No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.” This is a general summation of the human situation. Solomon reminds us that we have no control over some of the most important elements in our lives. We have no control over the weather that affects us daily. You’ve probably taken a trip to the coast hoping for sunshine, but instead you are greeted with rain and wind. We have no control of the weather. We have little or no control over what may be considered the most significant day of our earthly lives—the day of our death. We can eat healthy, take vitamins, exercise, and still die unexpectedly. A doctor told his patient, “I’m afraid you only have three weeks to live,” “Okay then,” the patient replied, “I’ll take the last two weeks of July and the week between Christmas and New Year’s.”333 That’s not how it works. We have no control over our death day. We also have little or no control over events that might hasten the day of our death (i.e., being discharged from war). Sadly, Solomon informs us that when we do have authority (8:9), we tend to use it to hurt others. In all of this uncertainty and frustration we must trust the Lord as we go through life. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.
[God is clear that we are to respect human authority. In our second section, He will say…]
In this section, Solomon urges us to fear God and submit to Him. In 8:10 he writes, “So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility.” In this verse, “the wicked” are unbelievers who go through the motions of attending “the holy place” (i.e., the Temple) on a regular basis. The phrase translated “they are soon forgotten” or “they received praise” is better rendered “they boasted” (NET).334 These hypocrites assume that they can disrespect God and His authority over their lives. But God wants the wicked to know that He has the last laugh.
In 8:11, Solomon explains that one of the primary reasons the wicked continue in their wickedness is delayed justice. He puts it like this: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” God’s mercy in not executing judgment immediately against those who sin is interpreted by those who do not openly fear God as being either a sign of weakness or impotence on God’s part, or a sign of a laissez-faire attitude on God’s part. The sinner then assumes (incorrectly, of course) that God does not really care whether people sin or not and/or that there are no negative consequences for sinning. Thus, the sinner feels secure in a self-oriented life, doing whatever he or she desires to do with no worries about what God may think or do. This is also true in government and paternal discipline. We slough off if there are no consequences.335
In spite of the fact that the wicked seem to prosper, Solomon argues that it is still better to fear God. In 8:12-14 he writes, “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility.” Solomon acknowledges that sometimes justice is backwards. The righteous receive what the wicked deserve and vice versa. A criminal gets shot and sues the city. A Christian family is killed by a drunk driver. Missionaries are martyred. Babies are aborted. These are depressing mysteries in life that cannot be resolved “under the sun.” Yet, these mysteries may have been generated intentionally by God so that humans would have to trust Him to guide them.336
In the end, the wicked will come and go. Their end will come quickly for their lives are likened to a shadow that passes by. Solomon emphasizes the “fear” of God three times in 8:12-13. The inevitable conclusion is that this is the only way to live one’s life.
In Psalm 73, Asaph contrasts the end of the wicked with that of the righteous. He reminds us that although it appears that the wicked are defying God, ultimately, the Lord will judge them in righteousness and truth. Asaph did not come to this realization by looking at the circumstances around him, he had to enter into the sanctuary of God; then he perceived their end! (Ps 73:17) The truth is, apart from the Scripture and fellowship with other believers, we will not find any peace in this life. We need God and each other.
So what is Solomon’s solution to this wretched life? He shares his pearls of wisdom in 8:15: “So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life337 which God has given him under the sun.” Solomon says, “Life is to be enjoyed.”338 The formal refrain: “to eat and to drink and to be merry” is Solomon’s way of saying: “Life is a gift from God, make the most of it.” Carpe Diem: “Seize the Day!” Even though life doesn’t always make sense, even though we don’t always understand what God is doing, we can trust in His sovereignty and let Him worry about all that is going on around us. So go out and enjoy your favorite meal! Do you like Chinese, Mexican, Italian, or a good steak or burger? Whatever your preference, eat and enjoy yourself. Solomon also tells us to drink. He means just what he says, “Drink,” but be sure to do so in moderation. Finally, he encourages us to be merry. Since you can’t change the present, the past, or the future, you might as well trust God and be content…even downright merry. Life is short and then you die. Why make this life miserable? Enjoy it.
Chapter 8 closes in 8:16-17 with these words: “When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, ‘I know,’ he cannot discover.”339Solomon discovered that he could not discover. God’s great knowledge and immensity overwhelmed him. Solomon is not alone. The more we work and think through various quandaries, the more we ought to recognize that we are humble peons that can’t discover a thing. What we really need is to stop striving and straining and to return to simple faith in God.
An advanced student asked the legendary Bruce Lee if Lee would teach him everything he knew about martial arts. In response, Lee held up two cups, both filled with water: “This cup represents all I know, and the second cup represents all you know,” Lee said. “If you want to fill your cup with my knowledge, you must first empty your cup of your knowledge.”340
Harry Houdini made a name for himself by escaping from every imaginable confinement—from straightjackets to multiple pairs of handcuffs clamped to his arms. He boasted that no jail cell could hold him. Time and again, he would be locked in a cell only to reappear minutes later. It worked every time—but one. He accepted another invitation to demonstrate his skill. He entered the cell, wearing his street clothes, and the jail cell door shut. Once alone, he pulled a thin but strong piece of metal from his belt and began working the lock. But something was wrong. No matter how hard Houdini worked, he couldn’t unlock the lock. For two hours he applied skill and experience to the lock but failed time and time again. Two hours later he gave up in frustration. The problem? The cell had never been locked. Houdini worked himself to near exhaustion trying to achieve what could be accomplished by simply pushing the door open. The only place the door was locked was in his mind.
Faith is not a complex process. It is not the result of years of education, pilgrimages, or flashy supernatural experiences. The door to belief is ready to open and is locked only in the minds of those who choose to believe it is.341 God wants you and me to stop trying to figure this life out. He just wants us to humble ourselves and submit to Him. Will you trust God in the midst of this unstable and uncertain life? Will you choose to believe that He is bigger and wiser than you are?
Proverbs 14:35; 16:14; 20:2
1. Whose face comes to mind when I think of being radiant with the joy of the Lord (8:1)? What do others see when they look at me? Do I have the joy of the Lord? Why or why not? Have I used my upbringing or personality to make excuses for my lack of joy?
2. Do I submit to my governing authorities? In what specific ways is this evident in my personal life? Read Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-15. When is disobedience to government appropriate (8:5-6)? Read Daniel 3 and Acts 4:1-29; and 5:29. How have I sought to balance these responses?
3. What does it mean to “fear God” (8:12-13)? How can I know whether or not I fear God? Is it possible to fear God and still eat, drink, and be merry (8:15)? How is it possible to balance these two perspectives?
4. What mysteries have I encountered that defy human understanding (8:16-17)? Have I experienced or observed the mystery of unjust triumph? Have I been confronted with the mystery of unfair consequences? Have I dealt with the mystery of untimely pleasure? What are some valuable lessons I have learned through all of these circumstances? In all of these issues, how have I guarded myself against wrong responses?
5. What would enable me to trust God in spite of my circumstances? What keeps me from trusting Him? How do I think I can grow in my faith and trust? Do I believe that God is in control of everything that happens to me? Would this include both good and bad experiences of life? Can anything happen to me that is not somehow part of God’s plan for me?
318 This sermon title is from Charlie Bing’s unpublished sermon by the same title.
319 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
320 Preaching Today citation: Submitted by Ed Rowell, Monument, CO.
321 Repeatedly, the writers of Scripture use the image of a shining face to speak a blessing. In the book of Numbers we read, “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Num 6:24-25). The psalms repeatedly referred to the Lord’s face “shinning” upon His people (Pss 31:16; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 19; 119:135). Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 108.
322 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 128.
323 Some understand the reference to “king” (melek) to refer to the heavenly King (i.e., God). Yet, Eccl 8:2b (“because of the oath before God”) favors the “earthly king” position.
324 Paul states that kings and other governing officials have been placed in authority by God and are ministers of God (Rom 13:1-7).
325 See 2 Kgs 11:17; 2 Chron 36:13.
326 Acts 4:1-29 and 5:29.
327 This same idea is applied to God in Job 9:12 and Isa 45:9.
328 Psalm 2 exemplifies a passage that we can find a great deal of comfort and encouragement in. Throughout this Psalm, the writer exalts the awesome God that we serve. Psalm 2:4-5, 12 says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them [nations, kings, and rulers who oppose God]. Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury. Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” This chapter can be summarized quite nicely: Woe to those in authority who ignore God’s Son!
329 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
330 Davis writes, “Qohelet, in 8:6, seems to be playing off what he said earlier, in 8:3. In 8:3, he declared that the king could and would do whatever “he pleases” (chaphets); here, in 8:6, Qohelet argues that there is a right time and a right way to do every “delight” (chephets) that we feel compelled to do. The Hebrew words recorded in the previous sentence are derived from the same root form as each other – the former word being a verb form, the latter a noun form. By using these words in this way, Qohelet is emphasizing the fact that, whereas the king may be able to do essentially anything he wants to do whenever he wants to do it, we (by contrast) need to make very certain that, when we take some action that may be contrary to the king’s delight / pleasure / command, we move forward with our action at the right time and in the right way.” Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
331 “Trouble” (raah) here literally means “evil” (see note at 8:3). The LXX has “knowledge” instead of “trouble.” Life is hard and unpredictable even for the wise, god-fearing person.
332 Paul says essentially the same thing in his epistle to the Romans: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:3-4).
333 Preaching Today citation: Submitted by Van Morris, Mt. Washington, KY.
334 Different Hebrew manuscripts show one of two possible readings in Eccl 8:10: (1) “soon forgotten” (NASB; the Masoretic text [Hebrew OT] or (2) “receive praise or boast” (NIV; the Septuagint [Greek OT]). The NET notes settle the matter. “The context of 8:10-17, which focuses on the enigmatic contradictions in divine retribution (sometimes the wicked are not punished), favors the alternate tradition. The wicked boast that they can come and go as they please in the temple, flaunting their irreligion without fearing divine retribution (8:10). This thought is continued in v. 11: failure to execute a sentence against a criminal emboldens the wicked to commit more crimes, confident they will not suffer retribution.” Note: the translation “boast” is to be preferred over “praise” because the verb means “boast” in the Hebrew piel verb form.
335 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails” (Eccl 7-11): unpublished sermon.
336 See also Eccl 3:11; 7:14, 23, 24; 8:17; 11:5.
337 The phrase “the days of life” is found in Eccl 2:26; 5:18; 6:2; 9:9; 12:7, 11.
338 Eccl 2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7.
339 Eccl 8:16-17 is either (1) a summary statement which parallels chapters 1-2 or (2) the introduction to a new section (8:16-9:10). Yet, the recurrence of the divider phrase “cannot discover” (Eccl 8:17; cf. 7:14, 28) argues for the inclusion of 8:16-17 with 8:10-15. This is also supported by the bracketing effects of 8:1 (“the wise man…knows”) and 8:17 (“man cannot discover”). Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 997.
340 David Jeremiah, “Today’s Turning Point,” 10/31/06.
341 Preaching Now (5-22-07) Vol. 6 No. 20. This account is taken from Alton Gansky 40 Days.
“DEATH!” There I said it—the infamous “d” word. Death is one of those subjects we don’t like to discuss. That’s why it’s a subject of so many euphemisms. Instead of using the word dead, we say, “passed away,” “returned home,” “gone to a better place,” “sleeping in Jesus,” or “went to be with the Lord.” At least we use those terms around the church and the funeral home. In less guarded moments, we speak of “taking a dirt nap,” “kicking the bucket,” “buying the farm,” “cashing in the chips,” “biting the dust,” or the ever-popular “croaked.” Whether we lean to the reverent right or the flippant left, we shy away from speaking directly of the ultimate enemy.343
It seems that we are hesitant to come to grips with our impending death. We would rather avoid any discussion about it. After all, death is a depressing subject. And who wants to be depressed? Yet, I would argue that we are not prepared to live until we are prepared to die. Solomon tackles the subject of death head-on. Instead of denying death, he discusses its reality and our response. In Eccl 9:1-12, Solomon provides two reminders that will enable us to make the most of our few days on earth.344
1. Death is certain (9:1-6). In this first section, Solomon explains that death is the “Great Equalizer.” Death plays no favorites and overlooks no one. Regardless of your strength and wealth, you are going to die. In 9:1 Solomon writes, “For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds345 are in the hand346 of God. Man does not know347 whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.” After much reflection, Solomon acknowledges that God is sovereign over everything and everyone. Here he states that nothing befalls the children of God that doesn’t first pass through the hands of God. Yet, with this, Solomon reminds us that we may experience “love or hatred.” The terms “love” and “hate” refer respectively to divine favor or disfavor. Solomon’s point is this: There are no guarantees as to what life will bring, but the certainty of life is that God is involved in the lives of those who trust Him. No one by even righteous deeds can gain control over God and coerce blessing from Him. One must acknowledge that all is in God’s hands.348 I’m reminded of this by the words of Bob Hope, after receiving a major award. He responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” Although I appreciate the humor of this remark, it is bad theology. Like Job, we are to receive both good and bad because both can come from the hand of God.
In 9:2-3, you’re going to find out why Solomon is not coming over for dinner. He writes, “It is [i.e., death] the same for all. There is one fate349 for the righteous and for the wicked;350 for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate351 for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.” Solomon could summarize verses 2-3 with these words: “Under the sun, you’re done.” If he were living today, he would say, “We’re all going to ‘take a dirt nap.’” Ultimately, every man who has ever lived or will ever live will die. Solomon was right; the same destiny overtakes us all. You and I can work out, take our vitamins, drink bottled water, stay away from McDonalds, and swear off Krispy Kreme, but even with the best of care for this flesh, it is one day going to give out and we will die.
In 9:3, death is labeled “the evil,” not simply a natural phenomenon.352 Death is an intrusion, it’s an enemy. This means we shouldn’t go to funerals and sing The Lion King song, “The Circle of Life.” The most ridiculous and pathetic advice you could give someone is: “Death is just part of life.” No it isn’t, it is death! It’s the wages of our rebellion and sin against God. It’s cosmic treason and it is punished by death.353 We were created by a living God, to be a living people, who live forever with this living God. The only way to get rid of death is to get rid of sin. That is why Jesus died for our sin, so we could live.354 Today, will you believe in Jesus Christ as you Savior from sin? He offers you eternal and abundant life.355
Despite the inequities of life, Solomon argues that life is better than death. In 9:4-6 he explains: “For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”356Solomon is focused on “life under the sun,” he is not talking about “life in the Son.” The person who lives “in the Son” can leave a godly legacy and attain eternal rewards. But that is not under discussion here. Instead, Solomon is speaking of life-and-death matters. We won’t get all we should out of these verses until we recognize that in Solomon’s day, dogs were diseased mongrels that ran in packs through city streets, not pampered pets.357 People feared and loathed them. Nevertheless, Solomon says that a live dog is better than the king of the jungle who’s dead. Why? Because the living know they will die! The living may yet reckon with the reality of death and in so doing embrace the joy life has to offer, but no such possibility exists for those who have already died. Their time has passed. There is no second chance, there is no purgatory, there is no reincarnation, and there is no eternal recurrence of life. You and I are going to die. We’re going to be painted up like a circus clown. We’re going to be filled full of preservatives. We’re going to be shut in a box, thrown into a six-foot hole, and become food for worms. This is painful, but it is true.358
This is one of the best passages in the Bible to offer to one who is contemplating suicide. Life may be a terrible drudgery for you right now. Relationships may have soured, finances may be non-existent, and spiritually you may feel far from God, but if you are breathing, there is hope that things may get better. Many people have built success out of the ashes of failure.359 Relationships can be healed; sickness can be cured; work can improve. It never makes sense to take your life. If you are feeling suicidal today, please tell someone.
Solomon has pulled no punches in his death-dealing exposé. The fact that our days are numbered ought to motivate us to live earnestly for God. In light of the brevity of life, we must live with seriousness, recognizing the importance of a life well invested. Twice a week for the rest of our lives, we ought to begin the day by looking in the mirror and saying, “I am going to die someday—maybe today.” What a difference that would make in our lives. The fact that we will die should affect the way we live.
[Solomon is clear that death is certain. Now he reminds us that…]
2. Life is uncertain (9:7-12). In this section, Solomon urges us to make the most of our lives because time and chance can overtake us. In 9:7-10, Solomon unveils five imperatives that advocate living life to the fullest (“go,” “eat,” “drink,” “enjoy,” and “do”). These five imperatives are located in the central part of this chapter and are recorded there to present the central thrust of the chapter: life is short; death is certain; so live in the most meaningful way that you can.360
Work is a privilege that we will not have after we die. Probably, toil connected with the curse on nature is in view here. We will be active in service in heaven, for example, but this will not be work as we know it now (Rev 22:3). If you think work is not a blessing, spend some time talking with someone who has been out of work for a long time.372 Throw yourself into something besides bed! You only get one shot at it. Do something worthwhile. Make a contribution.
I’ve read that a man or woman of fifty, having worked consistently since school, will have put in 56,000 hours of work. Imagine if you will, 56,000 hours of boredom and resentment. Who would come through such an ordeal with a sound mind? Yet a poor attitude towards one’s job creates that environment. Now imagine someone rising in the morning to say, “Thank You, Lord! Another day to use the gifts and the strength and the mind You have given me. What a gift You have given me that I may work and serve.” That mind-set will add years to your life and life to your years. It will also bring you success, promotions, and glory for God.373
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, often worked eighteen hours a day. Famous explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, once asked him, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten that there are two of us.”374 Surgeon was right. We have the Holy Spirit working in and through us. He can and should make work a pleasure not a pain. So have a blast while you last.
Tragically, many Christians live as if it is a sin to enjoy life.375 Yet, God created man and woman to live in a place called Eden, which means “delight.” The Bible teaches that one day we will live on a new earth that will be like Eden once again.376 So we are to prepare now by living a life of joy. The Hebrews knew joy perhaps better than any culture. In the Old Testament, there are no less than ten different words for “joy.”377 What is the level of joy in your life?
Every year I teach a class called “Eschatology” (i.e., the study of last things) at Ecola Bible School. One of the homework questions I ask my students is, “How would you live today if you knew it would be your last?” Some students give what they think are spiritual responses such as, “I would read my Bible all day and share Jesus with my loved ones.” However, many of the students say, “I would have a good meal with my family and friends. I would tell others how much I love them. I would go skydiving.” They figure if I haven’t read my Bible or shared Christ like I should, why bother doing so in my last day? People and enjoyment are what is meaningful to them. So have a blast while you last.
The last two verses of this section could serve as a summary for the entire book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon writes, “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” But just in case we are confident in our strengths and gifts to help us make our mark, Solomon lists five desirable assets: the “swift,” the “strong,” the “wise,” the “discerning,” and “to men of ability.” He then informs us that these talented individuals do not always win and find great success. Wisdom, skill, and hard work can promote but not guarantee success. This is true because “time and chance overtake them all.”378 First, time limits us. This is an echo of the teaching throughout Ecclesiastes that the seasons of our life are in the hand of God. This is a warrant for faith but also a death-blow for self-confidence. Second, chance is the unexpected event which may throw the most accomplished off course, despite the most thoroughly prepared schemes. Time and chance overtakes humankind just like death itself.379 So have a blast while you last.
Solomon concludes in 9:12 with these powerful words: “Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil380 time when it suddenly falls on them.” Unfortunately, man does not often recognize this truth. We live as if we are the master of our own fate, the captain of our soul. How foolish we are! Rather than the master of our fate, we are more like little fish. We swim along, minding our own business, and suddenly we are snatched up by a net…and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it! Time, chance, and death catch one unexpectedly, like a trap, and there is no escape. When the trap has closed, any opportunity to enjoy life is over. Just stop for a moment and think about it: What will we do if our heart or lungs fails us? What can we do if we contract a fatal disease? What can we do if we lose our job or our business? What will we do if a child dies or if a spouse leaves us? Sooner or later, we will all find out that our present existence and future destiny belong to the Lord alone. So have a blast while you last.
In a sense, this verse is a microcosm of the whole book of Ecclesiastes. So much of life is enigmatic and fails to conform to the rules we have learned. We’ve been taught that if you want to succeed you have to compete and be aggressive, get up earlier, go to bed later, put in more hours, do unto them before they do unto you. But, says Solomon, it doesn’t always work that way. Nothing is guaranteed. This is how life is, but we shouldn’t despair nor should we quit aiming to be swift, strong, wise, brilliant and learned. We should, however, quit thinking that life owes us anything, or, for that matter, that God owes us anything under the sun. Now if you talk about the long run, that’s a different story. Even Solomon says in 8:12: “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.” But in the meantime, often it will seem that time and chance play a bigger part in our lives than God’s providence.
You play the board game Monopoly. You buy railroads and place hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. You pass “Go” and collect $200. Everyone has fun. Then the game ends, and all the hotels, all the colorful tokens, and all the funny money go back into the box. Solomon, who held an empire much less plastic, would tell us that whether you build in plastic or gold it’s all the same. Build the temple, extend a dynasty, even write three God-inspired books—in the end, it all goes back in the box.381 Likewise, life is short. You and I are going to die. Stop and ask yourself, “What really matters? How do I want to be remembered? What do I want others to say about me?” And then make a commitment to have a blast while you last.
Proverbs 5:28-29; 18:22
1 Timothy 6:17
Colossians 3:17, 23
1. Am I prepared for trials, tests, and tragedies (9:1)? What gives me the necessary peace and confidence to prepare for these difficult seasons? How does the reality that my deeds are “in the hand of God” comfort me? In what way will this perspective help me to live my life this week?
2. To what degree am I aware of my imminent death (9:3-4)? Have I been guilty of being in denial of this reality? What will I do to both acknowledge and prepare for my dying day? How can I help others cultivate a healthy outlook on the brevity of their lives?
3. As a spouse, how do I express my love for my life partner (9:9)? How do I prioritize my spouse in the busyness of life? As a husband, how would my wife say that I have invested my few short years in her and our relationship? Would she say to her friends that I cherish and nurture her? Read Ephesians 5:25-33.
4. Do I serve the Lord wholeheartedly through my work (9:10)? What specific steps do I take to ensure that I have a godly work ethic? Read Colossians 3:17 and 23.
5. How am I going to live now that I realize my death day is set by God (9:11-12)? Read Psalms 39:4 and 90:12. How can I keep the sobering realities of these verses always before me? What can I do to remind other believers to live in light of eternity?
342 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
343 Revised and adapted from David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 225-226.
344 See Pss 39:4; 90:12; Jas 4:13-17.
345 This is the only place in the OT where this word, which normally is used of “service God,” is used as a noun.
346 “Hand” = “power,” cf. Eccl 2:24; Job 19:21; 27:11; Ps 10:12; 17:7.
347 The subsections that follow begin “no one knows” or the equivalent (Eccl 9:1, 12; 11:2; cf. 9:5; 10:14, 15; 11:5 [twice], 6).
348 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993),
349 The word translated “fate” (miqreh) should be translated “event” instead. Solomon refers only to that which “meets men at the end of their lives, an “event,” a “happening,” or “outcome.”
350 The “wicked” and “righteous” both refer to covenant people (not people of the world) because this follows the theology of Deut 31:29 and Jdgs 2:19.
351 The word translated as “fate” (miqreh) appears only rarely outside of the Book of Ecclesiastes, one time each in 1 Sam 6:9 (“chance” – NASB), in 1 Sam 20:26 (“accident” – NASB), and in Ruth 2:3 (not translated, but is subsumed by the verb “happened” – NASB). Within the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author consistently (all seven times) uses this word to reference the ultimate end (“under the sun”) of all animate beings – that ultimate end being “death” (Eccl 2:14, 15; 3:19 [3x]; 9:2, 3). Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
352 This too is a meditation on the fall; humanity has been cut off from the tree of life (Gen 3:8-24).
353 Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 3:23; 6:23a).
354 David Fairchild, “Living While Dying” (Eccl 9:1-12).
355 Jesus Himself said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have itabundantly” (John 10:10).
356 Verses 4-6 do not contradict 4:2-3 where Solomon said the dead are better off than the living. A person who is suffering oppression may feel it is preferable to be dead (4:1), but when a person is dead his opportunities for earthly enjoyment are non-existent (9:4-6). Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 24.
357 See 1 Sam 17:43; 24:14.
358 Fairchild, “Living While Dying.”
359 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails” (Eccl 7-11): unpublished sermon notes.
360 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
361 Eccl 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; cf. Gen. 14:18; 1 Sam 16:20; 25:18; Neh 5:15; Lam 2:12.
362 Putting oil on the face and arms was a sign of gladness (cf. Ps 23:5; 45:7; 104:15; Isa 61:3).
363 Paul joins the chorus: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) And “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16).
364 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 233.
365 This clever title/slogan comes from Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 250.
366 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.
367 Preaching Today citation: Steve May, Sermonnotes.com.
368 Preaching Today citation: The Talmud; submitted by Aaron Goerner, Utica, NY.
369 It is quite possible that the Apostle Paul had Eccl 9:10 in mind when he wrote Col 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” His point is: Life must be lived to the fullest in all that you do. Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). A helpful maxim here is, “Doing a little thing for God makes it a big thing.” The reason being, our God is not a little god…He is a colossal God! Anything that is done for the Lord and His glory is an enormously significant work!
370Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the OT and is translated “grave” in approximately half of those instances. The word sheol encompasses the region of departed spirits who are conscious, either in bliss or torment. Since the writers of the OT believed in an afterlife, sheol never means just the grave.
371 Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).
372 Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” 25.
373 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.
374 Preaching Today citation: “Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Christian History, no. 29.
375 Lest we think that only the ancient Hebrew readers to whom the author of Ecclesiastes was writing are those who should heed Solomon’s advice (commands), the authors of the NT concur. See Matt 5:16; 1 Cor 10:31; Eph 5:28, 33; Phil 4:4; Col 3:17, 23; 1 Thess 5:18; 1 Tim 6:17.
376 See Rev 21-22.
377 See Neh 8:10; Ps 104:31; Zeph 3:17.
378 Five accomplishments are listed, none of which guarantees success or prosperity: (1) the swift-footed may find himself a loser (cf. 2 Sam 2:18); (2) military strength is no guarantee of success in battle (cf. Isa 36-37); (3) wisdom similarly is no guarantee of a livelihood (cf. Eccl 9:13-16; 10:1); (4) understanding may be accompanied by poverty (cf. Eccl 9:15); and (5) favor may be delayed for innocent Joseph (Gen 37-41) and not come at all for others (Eccl 9:13-16). Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. by D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 130.
379 The prophet Jeremiah explained why these apparent “upsets’ in the natural order of things happen: “It is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). Ultimately God is sovereign and in complete control.
380 Nowhere in Scripture, here or in its seven other occurrences (Jer 2:27, 28; 11:12; 15:11; Amos 5:13; Mic 2:3; and Ps 37:19)—with the possible exception of Amos 5:13—do the authors of Scripture use the phrase to indicate a condition of sinfulness. Instead, those writers use this phrase to denote a time of disaster, trouble, or calamity. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
381 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 227.
There was once an elderly gentleman who loved playing golf. But he was almost eighty, and his vision was not very good anymore. He always had partners with him when he went out to play so they could watch his ball and tell him where it went. One day his buddies did not show up. It was a beautiful day for golf, and as he waited at the clubhouse he got more and more upset that he wasn’t going to get to play his round. Another elderly man in the clubhouse saw him and asked, “What’s wrong?” The man explained his predicament: “I was really looking forward to playing golf today. But I don’t see very well anymore, so I need someone to watch the ball after I hit.” The second man was even older than he was, but he said, “That’s no problem. I’ll be glad to ride around with you. I’ve got 20/20 vision. I can see like a hawk. You just hit the ball, and I’ll watch it fly right down the fairway.” So they went out on the first tee, and the old man hit the ball right down the center. He turned to his spotter. “Did you see it?” The man replied, “I saw it all the way until it stopped rolling.” “Well, where did it go?” The older man paused for a moment and then said, “I forgot.”
Even the best-laid plans don’t always work out—that’s a reality we all have to face every day. So how should you live when you’re not sure how things are going to turn out? Solomon says, “Don’t play it safe—take risks.” In other words, you have to live confidently. You can’t hide just because life won’t cooperate. Don’t avoid blessings because of the concerns that come with them. Don’t say, “I can’t get married. What if difficult struggles come up between me and my mate?” Or, “I can’t have children. How will I know they won’t be born with a birth defect?” Or, “I can’t start a business. What if it folds?” Or I can’t join the military. I might get deployed.”422 God wants you to step out in faith and take risks. He yearns for us to stop playing it safe. In Eccl 11:1-6, Solomon will pass on two insider tips that will help us to take some risks and avoid playing it safe.
It may surprise you that Solomon offers financial counsel as he nears the end of Ecclesiastes. Yet, this book is down and dirty, nitty-gritty relevant to our earthly lives. Thus, in these first two verses Solomon says, “Since life is so uncertain, spread your financial investments out.” In 11:1 he writes, “Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.” What in the world does this peculiar verse mean? Perhaps you’re like me and in your mind a number of thoughts arise. Cast your bread on the surface of the waters…and it will return to you soggy or moldy…and the seagulls will eat it…and your mother will be mad at you for playing with your food.424 These bizarre notions should cause us to ask the question, “What is Solomon’s point?” I would suggest that the word “cast”425 is better rendered “send” (NRSV).426 This verb refers to the commercial enterprises of sea trade.427 Furthermore, the term “bread” refers to grain and wheat from which bread is produced.428
Solomon was deeply involved in international trade with countless merchants.429 Then as now, one of the main trade commodities was grain. The merchants of Solomon’s day would load their grain ships and send them off. The Israelites were “casting [their] bread upon the water.” But notice that with Solomon, the word is plural: “cast your bread on the waters.” In other words, don’t put all your grain in one ship. Put your wheat in several ships, and send it out in a diversified way so that if one of the ships should sink, you’ll not be ruined.430 In others words, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Diversify your portfolio.
Instead of putting your grain in a boat and sending it off, you could keep it and make bread. That would be a safe bet since you would retain control of your grain and your bread. But that’s all you would have. Obviously, when you send grain that you own across the sea you are taking a risk. You may never see it or any return again. There are various risks like pirates, shipwrecks, and unscrupulous traders. Yet, there are also prospects of receiving back a dividend. It has been said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”431 The truth is, any kind of investing requires faith. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. No risk, no reward. So Solomon says, “Don’t play it safe—take risks.”
The thought of 11:1 is repeated and unfolded in 11:2. As is often done in the Scriptures, the case is first stated in a figure to grab our attention, and then a plain literal statement is given to avoid all possibility of misunderstanding. So 11:2 is a commentary on 11:1. Solomon puts it like this: “Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.” Here Solomon clearly encourages us to diversity our investments. The phrase “to seven or even to eight” is the Old Testament pattern of x + 1.432 Solomon speaks of trying every avenue there is and then adding one more. The reason for dividing your portion is “you do not know what misfortune433 may occur on the earth.” The stock market could drop, the value of your house could plummet, Social Security could run out, and Medicare may be insufficient. Any number of financial misfortunes could, and most likely will, occur. In light of this, you and I must prepare to the best of our abilities. The phrase “you do not know” is found four times in 11:2-6. This has been a common theme throughout Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 3:10, 11; 8:17). God and His works and ways cannot be completely known by fallen mankind, but we can trust Him because of what we do know!
God’s expectation is that we will invest our money wisely. Perhaps all of your money has been in the bank and you are barely drawing interest. You may need to consider purchasing stocks or a rental home. You may need to enroll your kids in the GET program (Guaranteed Education Tuition).434 Do not commit all of one’s possessions to a single venture. Look for the best means of investing the money that the Lord has entrusted to you. But don’t fall for any get-rich-quick schemes or multi-level marketing businesses. Before you know it, you’ve spent all of your money.
The biblical view comes down to this: Since God alone knows the future, we ought to make our plans, use our brains, study the situation, take all factors into consideration, seek wise counsel, do the best we can, and then leave the results to God. Don’t be reckless—that’s the path of certain ruin; but don’t sit on your hands either. Invest your money, take your chances, sleep like a baby, and let God take care of the future.435 Don’t play it safe—take risks.
[Why should you diversify your investments? Because you don’t know what will happen in the future. This reality will be especially drawn out in the following section where Solomon says…]
In this section,Solomon says that we cannot delay our course of action. We must “seize the day”—Carpe Deim. In 11:3-5, Solomon gives observations concerning the way things are, while in 11:6 he gives the practical application—the “so what” of the passage. In 11:3 Solomon writes, “If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.” Humans experience, but cannot predict or control, the events of their lives (a recurrent theme in Ecclesiastes). We need to distinguish between those things about which we can do nothing and those about which we can. Since we cannot stop nature’s patterns (when it rains or where a tree falls), we had better work on finding something else to do.436 The point is simple: Don’t waste your time with God’s affairs! “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1 KJV). Let God be God; He can concern Himself with His responsibilities. When we do that, we will realize all that we have to concern ourselves with.
In 11:4 Solomon writes, “He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.” This proverb criticizes those who are overly cautious. The farmer who waits for the most opportune moment to plant, when there is no wind to blow away the seed, and to reap, when there is no rain to ruin a ripe harvest, will never do anything but sit around waiting for the right moment. And so, the seed stays in the barn. Solomon exhorts us not to be like this farmer. Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect, because that will never happen. It is true that the wind and rain might come and destroy the harvest. Today’s work might be ruined and you might have to do it over again tomorrow. But that’s okay. Today’s work might succeed as well as tomorrow’s. And if so, then you will be able to reap the rewards for both. Don’t play it safe—take risks.
There is no time better than the present to step out in faith. So stop procrastinating! Be diligent constantly.437 If we wait until we “have time” to do something we never will. The “perfect opportunity” begins now—while we still can.438 Don’t put what God has placed in your heart off another day. There is no perfect time to have kids. We never have enough money, energy, or patience. Once you have children, don’t wait for the right time to spend time with them. Before you know it, your kids will be all grown up. If you are married, don’t wait for your husband or wife to be all that you want. Begin pouring your life into your spouse now. Don’t wait until you have spare time, more money, or better health. If you are a student, seek to accomplish all of your dreams today. Don’t settle for settled-for Christianity. If you are not currently ministering, get involved today. If we wait until we’re less busy, until we feel right, until just the right moment, we will never witness, never serve, and never see results. Don’t play it safe—take risks.
In 11:5 Solomon continues with two more analogies: “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman,439 so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.”440Life is unpredictable and mysterious. Solomon says life is just like the wind. The wind operates sovereignly. Humankind cannot create or control it, for the wind is unseen and unknowable. We perceive its presence by its effects.441 Likewise, we cannot understand how God forms bones in the womb. This is far beyond our comprehension, so we have to take this by faith. Yet, in doing so, we adhere to the most intelligent option available to us. It is clear that the creation of the human body couldn’t have happened by itself. Scientist Fred Hoyle says this would be akin to a tornado in a junkyard taking all the pieces of metal lying there and turning them into a Boeing 747.442 So, of course, since we cannot know God’s activities, we take it in faith that He is the one who makes all things.
There are many times when we look at things that go on in the world and we don’t have a clue as to what God is doing. But we have to trust Him because He is the one who makes and sustains all things. Too many Christians freeze because they don’t know what God wants them to do. They suffer from a paralysis of analysis. When facing a decision in their lives, they want God to tell them exactly what their choices should be. Does God have to tell you what to do? Will God tell you what to do? There is a difference between right or wrong decisions and right or left decisions. In the Bible, the will of God always refers to moral choices—decisions where one path leads to sin and the other to righteousness. For these right or wrong decisions, we can know the will of God. It’s found in the Bible. We need to pray and pursue the path of righteousness. For right or left decisions, God is under no obligation to reveal His plan to us. More than likely, He will not. That’s why in Ecclesiastes Solomon says you just have to be bold and act. Too often, Christians are looking for a no-fault deal. We try to do insider-trading with God to get some information that will show us which choice is best for us. But God doesn’t do insider-trading. He does not reveal His plan to men. In the Bible, there are men who wanted someone to tell them the future. Basically, they wanted someone to be their fortune-teller.443 God won’t tell you your fortune; He has already told you your duty. Don’t call a 900 number to find God’s will. Don’t turn everything into a mystical decision about what you “feel” God wants you to do. If it’s a right or left decision, pray about it and then boldly follow your heart.444
Our passage closes in 11:6 with the “so what:” “Sow your seed in the morning and do not be idle445 in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed,446 or whether both of them alike will be good.” Solomon issues a command: “sow your seed,” which is used metaphorically of giving (cf. 2 Cor 9:6). He wants us to have confidence and leave the results to God. The key to this passage is found in 11:6, “do not be idle.”447 The terms “morning” and “evening” form a merism (a figure of speech using two polar extremes to include everything in between) that connotes “from morning until evening.” The point is not that the farmer should plant at two times in the day (morning and evening), but that he should plant all day long (i.e., from morning until evening).448 That is what Solomon would have for us. To represent God in all that we do, with all that we have. Don’t play it safe—take risks.
What types of risks can you take? There are many possibilities. One of my best friends left Portland and planted a church in Charlotte, NC, because the Lord led him to do so. Similarly, Lori’s cousin gave up a great forestry job in Alaska to move to North Carolina. Is the Lord leading you to a move of some kind? Theo and Myra Yu have two brilliant daughters, Apphia and Avonlea, who have opted to leave the security of their home to go to college halfway across the United States. Two families in our church recently adopted children from other parts of the world. Several of our young people have decided to go into military service. Some of our young couples are stepping out in faith and choosing a one-income home. Some of the busiest people in our church have committed themselves to ministry when there is no time available in their schedule. Some of our people are sharing their faith with others. They risk persecution, loneliness, and demotion.
Actor John Wayne (1907–1979) once said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”449 So how will you step out in faith today? What will you do in an attempt to stop playing it safe? Will you take some risks for the kingdom of God?
Danny Cox, a former jet pilot turned business leader, tells his readers in Seize the Day that when jet fighters were first invented, they “flew much faster than their propeller predecessors.” So pilot ejection became a more sophisticated process. Theoretically, of course, all a pilot needed to do was push a button, clear the plane, then roll forward out of the seat so the parachute would open.
But there was a problem that popped up during testing. Some pilots, instead of letting go, would keep a grip on the seat. The parachute would remain trapped between the seat and the pilot’s back. The engineers went back to the drawing board and came up with a solution. The new design called for a two-inch webbed strap. One end attached to the front edge of the seat, under the pilot. The other end attached to an electronic take-up reel behind the headrest. Two seconds after ejection, the electronic take-up reel would immediately take up the slack and force the pilot forward out of his seat, thus freeing the parachute. Bottom line? Jet fighter pilots needed that device to launch them out of their chairs. The question is, “What will it take to launch us out of ours?”450
1 Timothy 6:18-19
1. How would I describe my financial stewardship (11:1-2)? Do I invest wisely and diversely? Are my spouse and I in agreement on the level of risk we are willing to assume? Am I actively seeking godly financial counsel? Whom do I seek this counsel from? How often do I revisit my financial portfolio? How has the Lord demonstrated His faithfulness to me in my finances?
2. In what areas of my life have I been afraid to move forward for fear of failure (11:3-4)? What steps of faith could I take in the next week? How would my life be different if I began to confront my fears? When have I confronted my fears with God’s Word and His courage? What was the result?
3. How well do I handle failure? What lessons have I learned from my past mistakes? Am I gun-shy about the future? If so, what needs to change in my own heart before I can be bold again?
4. What project, dream, idea, or initiative have I been postponing? When do I plan to get started? What is the first step I need to take? What am I waiting for?
5. Since I cannot know God’s thoughts or ways (11:2, 5, 6), how should I live? What is my understanding of God’s will? What freedoms do I have to make decisions? What does God ultimately hold me responsible to do? How can I be faithful to discern His plans and purposes for my life?
421 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
422 Revised and adapted from Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 174.
423 The NLT helpfully renders Eccl 11:1-2: “Send your grain across the seas, and in time, profits will flow back to you, but divide your investments among many places, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead.” It is worth pointing out that some scholars believe that these verses refer to helping many people (cf. Matt 5:42; Luke 6:30).
424 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
425 At first glance Eccl 11:1 (“Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days”) seems to parallel a proverb from the Egyptian Instruction of Anksheshonq (“Do a good deed and throw it in the water; when it dries you will find it”). This could support the idea of charity or liberality for which one would be rewarded. Support for this traditional view of the verse has also been adduced from an Arabic proverb. William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 101-102. Yet, Longman points out that “only a quasi-parallel exists with the Egyptian text. Furthermore, the later Arabic proverb may have been influenced by the early ‘charitable’ interpretation of 11:1.” Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 254.
426 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 254-255.
427 Eccl 11:2 (on diversifying one’s investments) and 11:6 (on sowing seed in the morning and evening) also support the idea of financial strategy. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 226-227.
428 E.g., Gen 41:54-55; 47:13, 15, 17, 19; 49:20; Num 15:19; 2 Kgs 18:32; Job 28:5; Ps 104:14; Prov 28:3; Isa 28:28; 30:23; 36:17; 55:10; Jer 5:17; Ezek 48:18. See NET Study Notes.
429 In the book of 1 Kings we discover that Solomon had quite a fleet of ships (9:26). These ships transported gold, silver, ivory, precious stones, expensive woods, apes, and monkeys (10:11, 15, 22).
430 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 282-283.
432 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 114.
433 The term “misfortune” (raah) literally means “evil,” yet in this context it refers to calamity (e.g., Eccl 5:13; 7:14; 9:12).
435 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 277.
436 Solomon’s exhortation here is similar to Paul’s exhortation, “making the most of your time” in Eph 5:16.
437 This verse implies a warning against inactivity (i.e., referring to investing in Eccl 11:1-2). Another view asserts that it is not inactivity (cf. TEV, REB), but timely activity that is being advocated. (1) Farmers do not sow in a strong wind. (2) Farmers wait until the wind direction denotes rain, not desert heat. (3) Farmers sow during rain possibly, but reap during no rain. When one is happy and successful, then give to others. If you wait the dark days may come when you cannot give. See UBS Handbook For Translators (), 398.
438 Tim A. Krell, “What a Wise Man Does,” in Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life, a paper written on March 1, 1996 for a Philosophy 311 class at Olympic Community College in Bremerton, WA.
439 See Ps 139:13-16.
440 The phrase “all things” is an idiom for the entire creation (cf. Ps 103:19; 119:91; Jer 10:16). NIDOTTE, vol. 1, p. 730, lists several other phrases that are used to designate the entire creation: (1) heaven and earth (e.g., Gen 1:1; Ps 115:15; 121:2; Prov 3:19-20); (2) “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (e.g., Ps 24:1-2; 50:12; 89:11; Jer 51:48; 1 Cor 10:26; (3) in heaven above or on the earth beneath as in the water under the earth (e.g., 20:4; Ps 135:6).
441 Jesus paraphrased this verse when he was talking to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). It should also be noted that some English versions take “wind” (ruach) as “spirit” or “breath,” thereby connecting the two lines and relating them both to prenatal activity (cf. KJV, NRSV, TEV). The interpretive question is, “Is there one illustration of mankind’s inability to know, or are there two illustrations in 11:5?”
442 Preaching Today citation: Marvin Olasky, “Things Unseen,” World (4-14-01).
443 See Ahaziah in 2 Kgs 1:2-5.
444 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 179. See also Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004).
445 “Do not be idle” is the Hebrew phrase “do not let your hand rest,” which is an idiom that means “do not stop working” (e.g., Eccl 7:18).
446 The verb “succeed” (kasher) is found only here and in Eccl 10:10. The noun (kishron) is found only in Ecclesiastes as well (cf. 2:21; 4:4; 5:10), meaning “skill,” “success,” or “profit.” Success is uncertain. It may come (i.e., 11:7-8) and it may not (i.e., 11:8b). When it does, act (i.e., share).
447 See Eccl 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, verily do it with all your might.”
448 Net Study Notes.
450 Preaching Today citation:Jim Davis, pastor, Silverdale, WA; source: Danny Cox, Seize the Day: Seven Steps to Achieving the Extraordinary in an Ordinary World (Career Press, 1994).
Have you ever heard of Ed Faubert? Faubert is what you call a “cupper.” In layman’s terms, he’s a coffee-taster. The man is so gifted that his astute taste buds are actually certified by the state of New York! So refined is Faubert’s sense of taste for coffee that even while blindfolded, he can take one sip of coffee and tell you not just that it is from Guatemala, but from what state it comes, at what altitude it was grown, and on what mountain.383
If you’re like me and you enjoy a good cup of coffee, you’re impressed with this man’s uncanny taste buds. His coffee wisdom is incomparable. But I have to ask this question: Why is it that so many Americans know so much about so many things that don’t really matter? Take me for example: I know a lot about sports. I know various athlete’s height, weight, strength, 40-yard dash times, and alma maters. I also know quite a bit about music. Growing up in the 1980s, I could tell you a few things about glam, metal bands, boy bands, and country acts. I even know many of their lyrics. But I ask you this: Who really cares about my pearls of wisdom? I know I don’t. I want to be wise where it really matters.
The legendary Mister Rogers once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”384 Fred Rogers was right. In Eccl 9:13-10:20, we will see that life may indeed be deep, but it is also rather simple. Yet, in order to experience life as God intends, we need to follow His Word. In this passage, Solomon tells us that “wisdom helps make a life.” He then gives three challenges for us to implement as we navigate through life.
Solomon emphasizes the worth of wisdom. In 9:13-15, he begins with an intriguing parable. He writes, “Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed385 me. There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man.”386 In this parable, a poor, wise man outsmarts a great king. He saves the day, yet he is unrewarded with wealth or social esteem. Whether the poor man delivered the city by diplomacy or military strategy is not the issue. The point is that the city owed its survival to him, but he received no reward or lasting respect.387 The sad truth is: wisdom is sought out only in desperate times; otherwise, only those who have wealth or power are in a position to demand public attention.388 Although the wise man failed to personally profit from his labors, his wisdom was not profitless for others or for his world. In fact, this poor man’s wisdom impressed Solomon (9:13) so much that he draws three conclusions from this parable (9:16-18):
[Solomon states that we should appreciate wisdom in others. Why is this so important? The answer is: God’s wisdom is greater than man’s strength. Solomon now goes on to exhort you and me to…]
In the midst of a passage praising wisdom, Solomon warns us of the dangers of foolish behavior. In Ecclesiastes 10, he uses the word “fool” nine times. In Solomon’s three books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), he uses the words “fool, fools, foolish, and folly” a staggering total of 128 times.391 We could call him a “fool buster.” Consequently, he writes an entire chapter replete with proverbs that will help us to behave with wisdom instead of foolishness. In 10:1 he shares a most unusual proverb: “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier392 than wisdom and honor.” This particular proverb may not be a terribly pleasant thought, especially if you are wearing perfume. It is Solomon’s vivid way of illustrating how a tiny bit of foolishness can destroy the powerful fragrance of a person’s dignity and reputation.393 This is the source of the well-known phrase “a fly in the ointment.” Notice, this comes right after the statement in 9:18 that “one sinner destroys much good.” The point being made is that it takes far less effort to ruin something than it does to create it. Or perhaps another way to put it is that it’s easier to make a stink than to create sweetness. Flies are insignificant creatures in the overall scheme of things. A perfumer’s oil, on the other hand, is a very costly substance created with care and skill. Still the insignificant can spoil the valuable. We must always remember that wisdom helps make a life.
Although there are probably many legitimate applications of this proverb, there are two I’d like to zero in on. First, the fly may be a person. One person who is out of sorts with God can lead a whole group into sin. One person who is negative can put a wet blanket on everyone’s hope. One person who is
super-critical can create single-handedly an atmosphere of discouragement. Are you a fly in the ointment at your home, at work, or at church? Second, the fly may be a flaw in character. One fault unchecked or one secret sin cherished can poison a person’s entire character. May I suggest that you choose to swat one fly before it lands in your perfume. Perhaps it is a bad attitude; maybe a bad habit; perhaps a tendency toward being irresponsible or unreliable; maybe an omission of something we should be doing that if not corrected could lead to spiritual deterioration.394 It’s easy to think, “It’s just a little thing:” a “little” relationship, a “little” flirtation at the office,” a “little” edge in a tone of voice, a “little” padding on the expense account,” a “little” experimentation in the wrong area—just a little thing.395 But we must remember that a little thing can ruin everything. Wisdom helps make a life.
In 10:2 Solomon writes, “A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.” First of all, this is not a political statement! God is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is a Theocrat—He alone rules His kingdom. We could call Him a benevolent dictator. Even though it is a campaign season, I will leave this alone. In Israel the right hand was the place of strength, skill, favor, and blessing.396 The left hand was considered the place of weakness. That’s why you hear people say, “I can beat you left-handed.” It means I can beat you with my unskilled hand.397 Solomon is saying that a wise man typically does the “right” thing while the fool does the “left” or wrong thing. My condolences to you if you are a lefty and you find this offensive.
In 10:3, Solomon continues his theme of foolishness with another proverb: “Even when the fool walks along the road, his sense is lacking398 and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool.” The “road” is not a literal highway but the fool’s metaphorical way of life. The Scriptures are portrayed as a well-worn, clearly marked path.399 Deviation from the path (in any direction) meant sin and rebellion.400 The fool doesn’t have to do a lot to demonstrate his foolishness. It is easily manifested in how he lives his life.
In 10:4-7, Solomon discusses our response to various leaders. In 10:4 he writes, “If the ruler’s temper rises against you,401 do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses.”402This is an extremely practical verse. Solomon says, “When your boss gets angry at you, let it go. Never let another person’s actions determine your reaction. Just hang in there and deal with the person. Keep your cool and maintain your composure. In doing so, you may one day gain a hearing with your superior.403 It is important to note the phrase “do not abandon your position.” I have worked for difficult people before, and my tendency has always been to want to quit. Yet, what I have learned is that difficult people are everywhere. This is why Solomon says, “Calm down. Breathe. Don’t quit and run to a new place trying to run away from a broken world.” We must all recognize that there will always be some people that we just can’t stand. These individuals may be in your family, work, school, neighborhood, or church. It’s easy to get angry and frustrated with these people. It’s natural to wish they weren’t a part of our life. Life without them would be so much easier but we would be spiritually flabby. Because of them, we are forced to grow in areas that would otherwise remain undeveloped for God.404
Solomon closes out this section in 10:5-7 by saying, “There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler—folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places. I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land.” In life, role reversal occurs.405 Often those who work hard or are successful lose their positions to less competent and qualified people. This is especially true in our society. A hundred years ago, the famous people were doctors and scientists. I know it may be hard to believe but even lawyers and pastors were respected. And now, you can’t turn on the TV without finding out what’s new with Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton. With all due respect to these ladies, I have no idea how they keep getting on television. It baffles my mind. These ladies need to recognize that wisdom helps make a life.
[Solomon urges us to avoid foolishness at any expense. Why does he harp on this? Ultimately, because he knows that foolishness can destroy our lives. Solomon now goes on to exhort us to…]
In this final section, we will clearly see that wisdom is “skill for living.” Solomon provides four concrete ways that we can make wisdom work for us.
First, apply wisdom in getting a job done (10:8-10). Solomon writes, “He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them. If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success.” These five illustrations make the point: Think before you act. You can have incredible energy, gusto, and perseverance. You can go out and dig a massive pit. But stay away from the edge or you might fall in and break your neck. Avoid the perils of your own work. Be wise as well as energetic. If you are clearing the stones from an old wall, be careful. All your strength could get you killed if there is a copperhead on the other side of that wall.406 It’s not enough to have energy; you better have wisdom to go with it. If you are an excavator, be careful when you cut out a piece of rock because it has to fall somewhere. Don’t let it hit you on the head. Be smart with your energy, diligence, and talent. If you’re cutting trees the same advice holds true. The tree has to fall somewhere, so be careful. And if you don’t have enough wisdom to sharpen your axe you are going to make your work a lot harder. Stop and sharpen that edge. If it’s dull you will have to strike harder and harder until you get out of control, miss the log, and hit yourself.407 It’s typically better to work smart instead of harder. If you exercise wisdom, you will have success.
Second, apply wisdom in controlling your words (10:11-15). In 10:11 Solomon writes,“If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.” This verse first looks like a random thought, but actually is the key to this entire section. You’ve probably seen a snake charmer on television. It’s quite a talent to be able to charm a snake, isn’t it? But if the charmer gets bitten, his talent didn’t do him any good. The charmer had the skill but he didn’t use it. Solomon’s point is that you need to use the wisdom you have. Otherwise, you may as well not have that sense, for it is of no service to you. It’s not enough to know how to charm the serpent; you have to actually apply your knowledge before you’re bitten. Let’s apply this idea to life. You probably have many areas in life where you know the right things to do. You could give a list of wonderful principles for marriage, parenting, money management, sexuality, friendships, and work. You know all the right answers in your head. But that’s not the most important part, is it? If the serpent bites, the person who knows how to charm a snake is no better off than one who doesn’t. So the important thing is not just that you have the knowledge but that you actually use it in marriage, parenting, and so on. You have to use your wisdom. Our churches are filled with Bible-believing people who have mangled their lives because they were bitten by the snake. They didn’t put their wisdom to use. What about you? Are there areas of your life where you know the right thing to do but just aren’t doing it? Are you praying with your spouse? Are you reading the Bible with your kids? Are you out of debt and using your money wisely to fulfill the Lord’s calling on your life? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to put your wisdom into practice.408Wisdom helps make a life.
In 10:12-15, it becomes clearer that Solomon’s focus is on controlling our words. He writes, “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him; the beginning of his talking is folly and the end of it is wicked madness. Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?409 The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city.”410It is sad to say but both the foolish and wise alike can multiply their words. Yet, consider the following benefits to silence or at least to talking less: (1) you can listen carefully to what others say; (2) you have time to frame your thoughts; (3) your companions will value your words because you have listened to them; and (4) you run a much lower risk of saying something foolish.411 A wise person once remarked that it’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Third, apply wisdom in leading others (10:16-19). In 10:16-17Solomon writes, “Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning. Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility412 and whose princes eat at the appropriate time413—for strength and not for drunkenness.” In these verses, Solomon informs us that some leaders try to solve problems with pleasure—food and drink. Food is for activity, not for inactivity. We eat to live; we do not live to eat!! One who controls the base appetite to eat probably can control other areas where self takes control. Self discipline is crucial in a leader! We are affected by the tone set by those at the top of any organization. This is true of both good and bad leaders. Laziness, incompetence, or moral failure in any organization will cause it to collapse. This is true from the White House all the way to your house. So Solomon gives us some guidance. An image of bad rulers is compared to good ones. The first priority for bad rulers is to fulfill their own appetites and desires. Good rulers, on the other hand, are disciplined. They enjoy good things in moderation, so they can concentrate on governing well.
In 10:18, Solomon shares another memorable proverb: “Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks.” Picture a guy sitting at home with a bottle of beer in his hand, watching television. He’s supposed to be doing work, taking care of things, providing for those for whom he is responsible. He’s supposed to be a steward of the tasks entrusted to him. But the house is falling down. The roof is leaking. The bills are stacking up. The beer belly is growing larger.414 Solomon says that this is not an appropriate response. While effort alone will not guarantee success, lack of effort will almost certainly guarantee failure.
What is it that you know you need to do this week that is not done in your life? It will take you less than three seconds to answer that question. I already know what it is in my life. Now that you know what it is, name it. Plan it. Schedule it. Do it. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; because in the grave where you are going there is no planning, no foresight, and no work. You want to rest? You will have plenty of time to rest in the grave. Until then, stay busy doing what needs to be done.415
In 10:19 he writes, “Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.” There may be a hint of sarcasm in Solomon’s voice. Throughout this book, he has taught that there is no answer for anything. On the other hand, lots of money would help anyone searching for pleasure in an attempt to escape life’s harsh realities. Yet, only wisdom matters.
Lastly, apply wisdom in withholding criticism (10:20). Solomon states that the wise person should not even criticize someone in the privacy of their bedroom. Listen to these words: “Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.” Many will ask the question, “What shall I do when those in authority over me are fools?” Solomon says, “Be careful what you say about those in authority over you. Loose lips sink ships. They also sink careers and friendships.” Of course, it is hard to keep reckless words a secret, but we must realize that words can travel like the speed of light.416 Those who hear juicy gossip and slander often use them for self interest (i.e., tell the king in order to gain favor). This is the origin of the little expression: “A little bird told me.” Birds don’t talk, of course, but Solomon is reminding us with this illustration that a wise person doesn’t say something in private that he wouldn’t want someone to hear in public.417 We should watch what we say because we never know who is listening. Remember, “The walls have ears!” We should always utilize discretion, caution, and control. Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), democratic politician from Texas, said, “Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.”418 Today, will you recommit yourself to holding your tongue? Will you strive to believe the best about people? Will you refuse to participate in gossip? If someone wants to talk to you about another person, will you shut him or her down? The truth is: gossip and slander can destroy churches. May you and I see gossip and slander in the same repulsive light as we do child molestation. We would never want to be party to this because it is sinful and we know the damage that it does. The same is true with gossip. It is utter foolishness.419
A man walked into a convenience store, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving his $20 bill on the counter. So how much did he get from the drawer? Fifteen bucks. Go figure.420 We read this story and we think, “What a fool!” Yet, we often exchange God’s wisdom for man’s foolishness and don’t think anything of it.
How should you respond to God’s Word today? I would suggest memorizing James 1:5: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” If you and I humbly come to the Lord and ask to exchange our foolishness for His wisdom, He will grant this prayer every time. He will also change your life in the process. Wisdom helps make a life.
1. Why is wisdom to be preferred over strength (9:13-18)? Why is wisdom unimpressive to most people? Do I express appreciation when I observe wisdom in others? Why am I so quick to forget the good that others do on my behalf? How do I respond when others fail to appreciate what I do for them?
2. How can a little foolishness ruin great wisdom (10:1-3)? When did I make a foolish mistake that ended up hurting others? What did I learn from my error? How did I seek to confess and correct the hurt? What was the result?
3. Have I ever worked under someone who was a fool (10:4)? Why is it critical to hold my temper when my boss is angry with me? How should I respond when I find myself in unfair situations at work? Read James 1:19. What type of employee would my fellow coworkers say I am? Would they say I respect my boss and those who work alongside me?
4. How would I describe my work ethic (10:8-10)? Is my work performance exemplary? Does it stand out to my boss and coworkers? Read Ephesians 6:5-8 and Colossians 3:17, 23. Am I wise in how I lead those that I have been given responsibility over (10:16-19)? Read Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1.
5. In what circumstances do I tend to talk too much (10:11-15)? What steps can I take to say less today? Read Proverbs 10:19. How can I squelch my tendencies to gossip and slander (10:20)? How can I help others to guard their tongues? Read Luke 12:3.
382 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
383 Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2007), 54.
384 Fred Rogers, the Mister Rogers of children’s television, from Christianity Today (3-6-00), 45.
385 The word translated “impressed” is the Hebrew adjective gadol, meaning “great.” Gadol is only translated “impressed” in Eccl 9:13. Solomon uses this word twice in the very next verse (9:14) where it is rendered “great” or “large” in most English versions.
386 Cf. Eccl 4:13-15. In both 4:13-15 and 9:13-15 Solomon seems to draw from real life situations. This is supported by the verbs in Eccl 9:13-15 which function either as past definite actions (describing a past situation) or as hypothetical past actions (describing an imaginary hypothetical situation for the sake of illustration). The LXX uses subjunctives throughout 9:14-15 to depict the scenario as a hypothetical situation. See NET Study Notes.
387 In 2 Sam 20:15-22, a wise woman delivered the city by having the men of the city cut off Sheba’s head and throw it over the wall. But even in the historical account, we are not given her name. And when we add this to what Solomon says we can assume that she was soon forgotten.
388 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
389 Preaching Today Citation: Submitted by John Beukema, Chambersburg, PA.
390 Church Leaders Intelligence Report Enclosed: 04.30.08.
391 See Eccl 10: 2, 3, 12, 13, 14, and 15. David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 249.
392 The terms “weightier” and “honor” are parallel. “Weightier” (yaqar) is from the same root as “precious,” “prized.” It is a play on the Hebrew concept of that which is heavier (i.e., metals) is more valuable. The word “honor” (kabod) is also a word play on “heavy” (e.g., Eccl 6:2; Ps 62:7; 84:11; Prov 3:16, 35; 22:4; 25:2). This term is often translated “glory” (e.g., Ps 3:3; 4:2; 19:1; 24:7, 8, 9, 10 [2x]). See Bob Utley, “Ecclesiastes”: unpublished sermon notes.
393 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 250.
394 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails”(Ecclesiastes 7-11): unpublished sermon notes.
395 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 252.
396 E.g., Gen 48:18; Ps 16:8; Isa 41:10.
397 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 159-160.
398 It is interesting that the phrase “his sense is lacking” is literally, “the fool has not heart” (i.e., he cannot think clearly, he lacks judgment, cf. Prov 6:32; 7:7; 9:4,16; 10:13, 21; 11:12; 24:30). This is just a clever way of saying that folly affects every area of one’s life. Utley, “Ecclesiastes.”
399 E.g., Ps 119:105.
400 E.g., Deut 9:12, 16; 31:29.
401 The Hebrew says “rising, his spirit rises.” The double use of the word “rise” (alah) is given to intensify the meaning of the word (“it soars”).
402 This is advice for those who serve the king (or other leaders). It links up with Eccl 8:1-4 and 10:16-7, 20.
403 In Proverbs we read, “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone” and “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (25:15; 15:1).
404 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 251-252.
405 Cf. Eccl 9:13-18; Prov 29:2.
406 The comment about the serpent biting the one who leans against wall (Amos 5:19) would be humorous in that culture. Since the walls were made of stones and everyone knew that snakes enjoy the cool shade and crevices that go with a stone wall, only a fool would causally lean against one without first checking it for snakes.
407 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 163.
408 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 164-165.
409 This is a recurrent theme (cf. Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 7:14; 8:7; 10:14). The future is hidden, even from wisdom. Wisdom is far better than foolishness (cf. 10:15), but it is limited by this fallen period of human history.
410 Hundreds of years later, James likens the tongue to a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder (Jas 3:3-4). The point is: The discretion (or lack thereof) we use in our speech dictates the direction of our lives. This is repeated throughout God’s Word. If only we could grasp its significance.
411 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 261. See also Prov 10:19.
412 According to Solomon, a noble ruler should be a descendant of rulers who are disciplined in the course of their life (10:16-17). Though this seems to be elitist to us, Solomon’s point is that rulers should have a healthy upbringing, have adequate resources, and be well-trained and prepared and equipped for the responsibilities of leadership.
413 This concept of a divinely appropriate time was first introduced in Eccl 3:1-11, 17; 7:17; 8:5, 6, 9; 9:8, 11, 12 (2x); 10:17 (esp. 3:11).
414 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 265.
415 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 266.
416 See Jesus’ words in Luke 12:3: “Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.”
417 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 276.
420 Preaching Today Citation: “Strange World,” Campus Life, Vol. 56, no. 2.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008 is a day I will never forget. I left my house at 5:30am for an early morning appointment. It was dark and cold. I thought there might be ice on the road so I drove carefully for the first couple of miles. Once I reached Johnson Point Road, I accelerated up to the 50 M.P.H. speed limit. As I was driving down a hill, I hit a patch of black ice and completely lost control of my car. My 1986 Honda Accord veered down a “slip and slide” of a road. In those few seconds, my life quickly passed before my eyes. I thought I was going to die or at least be seriously injured. My car slid across the center line, did a 180, and slammed into a mud bank. Not only did I survive this potentially fatal crash, I walked away from it with no injuries. By God’s grace, my car wasn’t totaled or even slightly damaged. I just had to spend the next several weeks picking mud, rocks, and grass out of the grill.
As I drove off to my appointment, I was shaking life a leaf. If my car had slid at any other point on the road it would have rolled off, to one side or the other. If another car had been traveling the opposite direction when I crossed the center line, there would have been a fatal head-on collision. Not only would I have died, but so would the person that was driving the other car. Furthermore, the place where I had my accident was approximately thirty feet from the memorial site for a teen from North Thurston High School who died coming home one night from a party. All of these factors caused me to realize that the Lord spared my life for a purpose. This was another reminder that God is not finished with me yet. I was also reminded that I need to invest well in the relationships that matter most.
Since that time, Eccl 11:7-12:8 has taken on great meaning.452 In this passage, I believe Solomon says, “Live while you are dying.” If you know country music, this may sound a lot like Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying.”453 The notable revisions are the words “while” and “are”—live while you are dying. By modifying this statement, I have chosen to focus on the biblical truth that all people are appointed to die.454 Thus, you don’t have to live like you were dying because your body is actually dying at this very moment. It is, therefore, more accurate to say you need to “live while you are dying.” In this memorable passage, Solomon shares two exhortations that will enable us to live while we’re dying.
In this first section, Solomon focuses on the importance of living our lives to the fullest before we grow too old.456 In 11:7 he writes, “The light is pleasant, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun.” In Scripture, “light” is often a synonym for “life”457 and the word translated “pleasant” is often used in reference to honey.458 I have always liked peanut butter and honey sandwiches and Honey Bunchesof Oats cereal. I even like honey in my coffee. The point is that life is “sweet” and should be savored like honey.459 Thus, the phrase “light is pleasant/sweet” means “it’s good to be alive.”460 So feel free right now to rock your head back and say, “Ahhh.” In 11:7, Solomon continues and makes use of a truism of life—that seeing the sun typically brings delight. We often say things like, “What a beautiful day it is!” “Don’t you just love these sunny days?” Solomon references those days when you wake up and everything works. You know, those days when you wake up five minutes before your alarm goes off and you can breathe through both of your nostrils. Your bum back is not hurting, your legs aren’t hurting, and your relationships are working. We’ve all had days when the music sounded better and we just wanted to roll down our car windows and enjoy life because everything worked.461 Solomon says, “Enjoy life because there are some amazing days.” Feel free to let out a big, “YEOW?!” Or maybe a little James Brown, “I feel good.”
Now before we get too carried away, we will see why Solomon is not a guy most people would choose to have over for Sunday lunch. He moves from “Life is sweet” to “I will ramble on about death for the rest of my time with you.” In 11:8 he puts it like this: “Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything that is to come will be futility.”
Solomon exhorts us to “rejoice” in all of the days that we are fortunate to live. Notice that three letter word “all.” Even if we live to be a ripe old age, we are to rejoice in all of our years. Yep, that’s right…even the seventies, eighties, and nineties. A simple way we can do this is by enjoying the ordinary nature of life. A great deal of what we do every day may seem mundane and even trivial, but that is where the will of God begins for you and me. Blessed is that man who enjoys the routine, blessed is that woman who delights in the mundane, for they shall discover that God is in the details of life.462 As we age, we need to learn to be thankful just to be alive. The older we get the more thankful and content we should become.
As it turns out, the golden years may really be golden after all. Recent research suggests that older Americans are not only the happiest Americans, but they are also much more socially active than expected. Although many older individuals face health problems, they are generally more content with what they have than younger Americans. The research found that the odds of being happy increased by five percent for every ten years of age. Ilse, an 84-year-old retired nurse says, ‘Contentment as far as I’m concerned comes with old age ... because you accept things the way they are. You know that nothing is perfect.’ Although aging is often looked at negatively in our society, age brings many benefits, including a greater likelihood of contentment. Christians can also look at aging as bringing us one step closer to heaven and eternity with God.463
With that said, it is critical for us to recognize that when it comes to years of life, it is still a matter of quality over quantity. It is better to add life to your years than to add years to your life. We need to live life fully every day. In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson) said, “Every man dies but not every man really lives.”464 This is a rather biblical assessment of life. The Bible declares that we will all die, yet many of us miss out on the abundant life that God offers us.465 Don’t let that happen to you. Live while you are dying.
At this point in the context, Solomon begins to talk about the different opportunities and problems that regularly occur during the different stages of life: childhood, youth, young adult, and old age. In 11:9 Solomon writes, “Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment466 for all these things.” Here Solomon writes specifically to young people and commands young men and women to rejoice during their childhood and teenage years. Now this doesn’t mean party-hearty and sow your wild oats. This advice refers to the natural human instincts of young people: be with friends, enjoy life at social events, see the world, find one’s vocation, and desire a family and children. Enjoy your life. Don’t put tremendous pressure upon yourself when making significant decisions. Remember the words of Ps 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” If you are delighting yourself in the Lord, His desires will naturally become your desires. This means you don’t have to find God’s will, you just need to find God. Or, as Augustine and Luther have said, “Love God and do whatever you please.” Christians ought to have more fun that anyone, but we should be pure and blameless before our on-looking world. The reason for this is that we are responsible for our acts (cf. 12:14).467 God will judge us for what we do even in our youth.
The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), once said, “Youth is such a wonderful thing. It’s a shame to waste it on young people.” Shaw was right. Young people are typically either driven to a fault or lazy to a fault. It is rare to find a balance in children and teens. Consequently, it is easy for young people to squander their youth and fail to rejoice during their formative years. When I was in middle school, I wanted to be in high school. When I was in high school, I wanted to be in college. When I was in college, I wanted to be in seminary. When I was a seminarian, I wanted to be an associate pastor. When I was an associate pastor, I wanted to be a senior pastor. When I was single, I wanted to be married. And so on and so forth. One of the most difficult issues in life is contentment. Young people, enjoy your life. I command you, the Bible commands you, “REJOICE!” Rejoice now while you can.
In 11:10, Solomon exhorts young people with these words: “So, remove grief and anger from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting.”468
Young people, you are commanded to actively and intentionally “remove” three entities from your life: grief, anger, and pain. Practically speaking this means: As far as possible the problems that beset heart and mind are to be resisted. Quit being a worrywart. Guard yourself from being stressed out by school, sports, and relationships. There will be plenty of time to really worry when you get older. Just kidding! Worry is a sin, so avoid it at all times. Don’t develop a root of bitterness. If your parents have divorced, forgive them. If your best friend gossiped about you, let it go. Don’t bring pain upon your body through alcohol, drugs, and sex. It’s just not worth it.
I have to also wonder if the phrase “put away pain from your body” has the application: Stop complaining about your health problems. Recently, two children in our congregation have battled severe health challenges. Logan Myrick has struggled with a brain tumor and Allison Vincent now has severe heart problems. Yet, if you look into the faces of each of these precious children, you sure wouldn’t know it. They are true heroes and examples. Here is a principle, young people: If you want to avoid being an older crabby person…don’t be a young crabby person. I have a hunch the adults that I know who never complain about their cancer, migraines, and general health issues are those who learned to not complain as young people. And always remember this: “When we complain, 90 percent of the people don’t care and don’t want to hear it; the other 10 percent probably feel a secret satisfaction that we are getting what we deserve.”469 So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to complain.
Solomon says we are to remove grief, anger, and pain because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. The phrase “the prime of life” literally refers to “blackness” of hair as opposed to grey hair.470 This has great meaning to me. Recently, I have noticed a few grey hairs in my otherwise black hair. When you have black hair, a grey hair really stands out. At first, I was like, “What is this?” I thought I had a few more years before greydom. I guess I’ve been under too much stress. Initially, it was disappointing to me. But now I find this a helpful motivation. My black hair is going to quickly turn into grey. This should not discourage me; rather it ought to remind me that my time is short. Youth is “fleeting” (hebel) just like our “breath.”471 We need to enjoy life now. We need to live for Christ now.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a poetry teacher for an old, established all-boys school. On the first day of class, he takes his students downstairs to a hall filled with old photos of past classes. Some of the photographs are fifty to seventy-five years old. Most of the men in the photos have lived and died. They are nothing but worm food and daisy fertilizer. The pictures portray them in their youth and vitality, but that was in the past and now they are dead. As the boys gaze on these long-forgotten portraits of youth, they hear the words Carpe Deim—“Seize the Day!” Life is short. All too soon they will be nothing more than a faded photograph on a wall. So seize the day—make each day count. Live purposefully and meaningfully. Do great things while there is time for greatness. Don’t put happiness on hold. Enjoy what you have. Live while you are dying.
I developed a greater appreciation for this section this past week. Two weeks ago, my family and I enjoyed a glorious vacation. We played tennis, went walking and canoeing, and worked out. We were refreshed and renewed. It was hard to come back to “the real world.” Yet, I was excited to get back to work. Unfortunately, I was only able to work one day this past week before I was stricken with the flu. The day that I recovered from the flu, I took my dilapidated body next door and my neighbor and I moved all of his possessions out of his 2400 square foot home. The move took from 9:30am to 10:30pm. I then spent Saturday recovering. Needless to say, the Lord really brought this passage alive for me. My week of vacation represents the joys of youth; my week of the flu and the move represents old age.
[Why should we rejoice now while we can? Because old age is coming. Thus, we should live life to the glory of God. Solomon also exhorts us to…]
Three times in this section (12:1, 2, 6) Solomon uses the word “before.”472 His clarion call is for you and me to live life to the fullest before old age and death comes. In 12:1, Solomon summarizes what he will say in 12:2-7, namely that we will have no delight in old age and death.473 He writes, “Remember also your Creator474 in the days of your youth,475 before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight476 in them.’”477To“remember” doesn’t mean to jog one’s memory. Rather, the verb “to remember” (zakar) is a command that involves a wholehearted commitment to love, serve, and fear God.478 God’s expectation is that “remembering” Him translates into action. We must live as stewards who will give an account to our Creator.479 The phrase “evil days” refers to sickness, sorrow, senility, and eventually dying.480 God commands us to remember Him in our youth because He wants the best days of our lives.
Young people, one of the worst moves you can make is to forget your Creator in the days of your youth. This leads to bad choices that can forever affect your life. If you don’t walk with God in your high school and college years, the choices you make in a college, a spouse, and a vocation may not be the ones God wants you to make. If you don’t believe me, ask Solomon. Initially, Solomon loved God. He was the son of David and the builder of the temple. He asked for wisdom above any other gift. He started well but got off track. He eventually refused to remember his Creator in the days of his youth. Gradually, over the course of time, he made little compromises that resulted in disaster. He cultivated relationships with ungodly women and these ungodly women led him into idolatry. Even though he had everything this world has to offer (i.e., wine, wealth, wisdom, women, and work), he was miserable. It was all hebel.481
But if you “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” you will be set up for decades to come and into eternity. You will abstain from sexual immorality and marry a godly spouse. You will select the right college for you to attend. You will choose the vocation that God has created for you to do. You will make the right financial decisions. You will not have to overcome various vices and addictions. You will have a love and a commitment to the local church.
Some people have insinuated that our church focuses too much on children and youth. Whenever I hear this, I strive to tell folks that this is indeed what we are attempting to do. We prioritize children and young adults because we want to be preventative. We believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s not that we don’t love adults, but many adults are set in their ways. They have the broken marriages, addictions, and bad attitudes. Our goal is to keep these things from happening to our young people. We are thinking of the church of the 21st century.
However, you may be saying, “I have wasted my youth. Is there any hope for me?” The answer is, “YES…if you begin to remember the Lord TODAY!” It is a grave mistake to say, “I’m going to wait until I get older to begin serving the Lord.” Relatively few people turn to the Lord in their old age. I understand there’s a sign on the Trans-Alaska Highway that says, “Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it for the next 200 miles!”482 So today you must choose whether or not you’re going to remain in your rut. God will give you a new lease on life if you say, “I want to remember you.” Of course, you can’t turn back the hands of time, but you can live while you are dying.
In 12:2-7, Solomon describes the advance of old age in the imagery of a decaying house.483 He is not saying that all of these things happen to everybody. But it is an allegory that fittingly describes what we can expect in old age; and it should motivate us to serve God in our youth, whether our “youth” means our teens and twenties, or the “youth” of whatever years are left.484 But before I launch in I must remind you that I’m just the mailman, not the writer of the mail. So please don’t be offended by what you are about to read. Solomon is an old man who is living out the waning years of his life. He is likely a little crotchety. So he is going to tell things the way they are. When you are an old man sometimes you don’t hold back and watch your p’s and q’s. You just speak things the way they are. You could say that is one of the privileges that comes with age.
In 12:2 Solomon says that we are to remember God “before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain.” This refers to the fading capacity for joy and excitement. It also points to the repetitive gloom faced by the elderly.485
In 12:3 Solomon says that the “the watchmen of the house tremble.” This means that the arms and hands shake and become feeble. When he says that the “mighty men stoop,” he is referring to the shoulders, legs, and back slumping and becoming feeble. Your knees buckle when your belt won’t!
Your back goes out more than you. “The grinding ones stand idle because they are few” speaks to the scarcity of teeth. You sink your teeth into a steak and they stay there. The phrase “those who look through windows grow dim” means vision suffers.486 Or if you prefer, your arms aren’t long enough to hold reading material.
In 12:4 Solomon says, “and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low.” This refers to the loss of hearing. To make matters worse, Solomon writes, “and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly.” These two phrases mean that as we age we will struggle to sleep and we will wake up early. Furthermore, our voices will quiver and weaken. We will be hard to hear.
In 12:5 Solomon says, “Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road.” This refers to fear of injury due to frailty. The following phrases are rather picturesque: “the almond tree blossoms”487refers to our hair turning white. The phrase “the grasshopper drags himself along” speaks of the halting walk of the elderly (“grasslimpers”).488 The phrase “the caperberry489[desire] is ineffective” refers to a decrease in the appetites of life (e.g., food and sex). In other words, you turn out the light for economic rather than romantic reasons. And tragically, even though you eat less and less you tend to gain more and more as you age. This begins in your twenties. The final phrase in 12:5 is, “For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street.” The point being, man dies and life goes on.
In 12:6 Solomon writes, “Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed.” All of the items mentioned in 12:6 are associated with a well. Throughout Scripture, a well is a metaphor for life. But this one is no longer being used for drawing water. Someday your body is going to wear out. You will be nothing but a dry shell of your former self. The four verbs emphasize the finality of life. You and I are going to die! As bad as this sounds, remember, Art Linkletter once said that it’s better to be over the hill than under it. Whatever life is for us, wherever we find ourselves in age or stage, every moment is a gift of God—brightly wrapped, waiting to be opened, admired, and delighted in. The bittersweet nature of loss makes the present more precious; knowing that the silver cord will one day slip away, we cherish it all the more while it is in our hands.490
It has been said, “Growing old is not for sissies.” These verses prove it! Yet, the humbling thing is I am sprinting headlong into old age. It’s been said that our body begins to suffer the negative effects of aging in our teenage years. We could say, “Its downhill from there,” so to speak.
According to an old fable, a man made an unusual agreement with Death. He told the Grim Reaper that he would willingly accompany him when it came time to die, but only on one condition—that Death would send a messenger well in advance to warn him. Weeks winged away into months, and months into years. Then one bitter winter evening, as the man sat thinking about all his possessions, Death suddenly entered the room and tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, the man cried out, “You’re here so soon and without warning! I thought we had an agreement.” Death replied, “I’ve more than kept my part. I’ve sent you many messengers. Look in the mirror and you’ll see some of them.”
As the man complied, Death whispered, “Notice your hair! Once it was full and black, now it is thin and white. Look at the way you cock your head to listen to me because you can’t hear very well. Observe how close to the mirror you must stand to see yourself clearly. Yes, I’ve sent many messengers through the years. I’m sorry you’re not ready, but the time has come to leave.”491 May we learn to pay attention to the messengers.
In 12:7, Solomon abandons imagery and states, “then the dust will return to the earth as it was,492 and the spirit493 will return to God who gave it.” Death is the returning of the body to the dust. This verse is very similar to what God said to Adam, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). The spirit’s returning “to God who gave it” reminds us of the source of our life (Gen 2:7). Solomon’s point throughout all his allegorizing is crystal clear: Old age will not be a time of strenuous service for the Lord. Does that mean old age cannot be glorious? Of course not! If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ on your way to your “eternal home,” you can be ecstatic! You can spend your time drawing near to God, knowing that your life has counted for Him. We will all face the above realties unless we die young or Christ returns. Therefore, it is critical that we set goals and live while we are dying. We can live the rest of our life “young at heart.” We must recognize that we are not really old until we abandon our purpose and mission in life. A perfect example is Caleb. Ask God for a mountain. You’re not ready to live until you’re ready to die. Settle eternal issues and throw yourself into life.
This passage concludes in 12:8 with familiar words: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity!’” The book of Ecclesiastes is characterized by two phrases: “vanity of vanities” (1:2) and “under the sun” (1:3). By utilizing these phrases Solomon uses satire, irony, and tongue-in-cheek statements as a way to force fallen humanity to come to grips with the fleeting frailty and hopelessness of life without God. Yet, in spite of the brevity of life and its disappointing nature apart from God, life is good and is meant to be enjoyed with God.
This sermon concludes with a powerful testimony from Duane Crouse. Four years ago, Duane left his home for hockey practice. He did not kiss his pregnant wife or his three children goodbye. He was in a hurry to get out the door. In the middle of hockey practice, Duane collapsed on the ice stricken with a heart attack. He was “dead” for an unheard-of ten minutes. The medics used the paddles four times and finally brought him back to life. He remained in a coma for four days. Miraculously, God spared Duane’s life. Unfortunately, he lost the best job of his life and his wife left him during this especially dramatic season. Duane came to recognize the fleeting nature of life. He made a commitment that he would never leave his home without telling his children he loves them. This past year Duane became a Christian through the ministry of our church. He has also fallen in love with a wonderful Christian woman who has three children. Together they will become a godly family of nine. As Duane grows as a new creation in Christ, it is refreshing to see how seriously he takes his relationships with others. He understands that today could be his last day on earth. He is an inspiration to me and countless others.
Romans 12:1-2; 14:10
2 Corinthians 7:1
2 Timothy 2:22
1 John 3:1-3
1. Do I genuinely enjoy life (11:7-8)? What evidence can I provide to substantiate this? What would my spouse and children say? What about my coworkers, neighbors, and fellow church members? Would those who know me best say that I am content and joyful? Or would they say that I am constantly stressed and consumed with work, ministry, and various challenges?
2. Did I make the most of my childhood and young adult years (11:9-10)? What memories can I share that demonstrate this? How and when did I fail to truly enjoy my youth? Did I try to grow up too fast? If so, what mistakes did I make along the way? What regrets do I have? How can I share the errors of my ways with my own children and grandchildren to prevent them from making my same mistakes? It may be best to ask the question: If I could live my childhood and youth all over again, what would I do differently?
3. What does it mean to “remember” the Lord (12:1)? In what ways did I strive to do this in my youth? How am I seeking to remember the Lord today? What role does a future judgment (11:9) play in remembering the Lord? How should this motivate me today?
4. How have I experienced my age catching up with me (12:2-7)? What bodily weaknesses have discouraged me the most? Have I shared my disappointments with others and experienced their comfort and empathy? How does the realization that I am deteriorating draw me closer to my Creator?
5. Why is life described as “vanity” (12:8; cf. 1:2)? How have I recently experienced the fleeting and frustrating nature of life? What has been my response? How has the book of Ecclesiastes changed my perspective? What can I do to not merely survive but thrive in the midst of life?
451 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
452 I strongly recommend the work of my mentor Barry C. Davis, “Ecclesiastes 12:1-8—Death, an Impetus for Life,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991): 298-318.
453 This is a country music classic that chronicles the life of a cancer patient who has been given six months to live. The lyrics are available at http://www.anysonglyrics.com/lyrics/t/timmcgraw/live-like-you-were-dying-lyrics.htm and the music video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mHaFMqde6A .
454 See Rom 6:23a; Heb 9:27a.
455 Regarding 11:7-10, but more specifically about 11:7-8, Kidner offers the following reminder: “Candid as ever, these verses match the delight of existence with the seriousness of it. Each joy here is confronted by its opposite or its complement; there is no softening of the colours on either side. The bliss of being alive is captured in the lovely sentence which opens with the saying, Light is sweet… (7); and this youthful radiance may last, as verse 8a points out, to the end. But not beyond. The author has not gone back on his insistence that, by themselves, time and all things temporal will disappoint us, who have eternity in our hearts (cf. 3:11). Their light must give way to the days of darkness and the undoing of everything under the sun; and we must face the fact or be shattered by it.” Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 98-99.
456 In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates these verses in a helpful manner: “Oh, how sweet the light of day, and how wonderful to live in the sunshine! Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted. Take delight in each light-filled hour, remembering that there will also be many dark days and that most of what comes your way is smoke.”
457 The term “light” (haor) is used figuratively (metonymy of association) in reference to “life” (e.g., Job 3:20; 33:30; Ps 56:14). By contrast, death is described as “darkness” (e.g., Job 10:21-22; 17:13; 18:18; cf. Eccl 11:8; 12:6-7).
458 See Judges 14:14, 18; Ps 19:10; Prov 16:24; 24:13; 27:7; Ezek 3:3. The only other usages of mathoq in the OT that don’t explicitly describe honey are Eccl 5:11; 11:7; Song of Sol 2:3; and Isa 5:20 [2x].
459 See NET translation and study notes.
460 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1993). Cf. Eccl 2:24-26; 3:12, 13, 22; 5:18; 8:15.
461 Matt Chandler, “To the Young and To the Old” (Eccl 11:7-12:14): http://www.thevillagechurch.net/resources/sermons.html.
462 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 283.
463 “Oldest Americans the Happiest”:http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=1491.
464 This movie is rated R for violence; however, this movie is familiar to most of my listeners. While I may not be comfortable showing a video clip, I find this quote to be insightful.
465 See Rom 5:12-21; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:22; John 10:10.
466 The definite article is used (the judgment) referring to a specific future event.
467 Cf. Eccl 3:17; 12:1; 14; Matt 25-26; Rom 2:16; 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 6:7; Rev 20.
468 In 11:9a and 10 Solomon urges us to enjoy life. In 11:9b, he reminds us that we will be judged for our actions. The way that Solomon has packaged these verses is called a chiasm or bookends. If nothing else, this chiastic structure indicates that God’s judgment is NOT intended to ruin the true enjoyment / the true pleasures of this earthly life that we live. Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
469 Stanley C. Baldwin, A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Old Age from Preaching Now 4.24: 7/12/05.
470 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,
471 See Eccl 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; Job 7:16; Ps 39:5, 11; 62:9; 78:33; 144:4.
472 Interestingly, the only other place in Ecclesiastes where the word “before” appears is in 2:3b—a verse that begins a section on seeking the meaning of life before it is too late: “until [‘before’] I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
473 Davis, “Ecclesiastes” 12:1-8, 305.
474 “Creator” is a form of the Hebrew verb bara (Gen 1:1). It is exclusively used to describe God as the One who creates. It is interesting that the participle is plural (cf. Job 35:10; Ps 149:2; Isa 54:5), which relates to (1) the “us” passages in Genesis (cf. 1:26-27; 3:22; 11:7) and (2) the general name for God as creator, Elohim, found throughout Genesis 1-2:3. Bob Utley, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”: unpublished notes.
475 The phrase “in the days of your youth” is a chronological beginning point (i.e., young person still at home, pre-marriage). In Judaism a person is not responsible to the law until a period of training and personal commitment (i.e., bar mitzvah, bath mitzvah). From this time forward believers are responsible to God for their actions.
476 Davis states, “In Scripture, the words translated by NASB as “no delight” (ayin chephets) appear in combination only seven times, as follows: of a dowry that is not desired (1 Sam 18:25), of a vessel that is not desired (Jer 22:28; 48:38; Hos 8:8), of worship that does not please God (Mal 1:10; Eccl 5:4), and of old age (Eccl 12:1). Considering only these verses, we discover that that which does not delight is that which is insufficient, not special, of no significant value, unacceptable, or that which is accompanied by misery and is incapable of producing any real or
lasting joy.” Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
477 In Hebrew, Eccl 12:1b leads into a single sentence containing a picturesque description of old age and death.
478 Christianity is a religion of remembrance. In the Old Testament, the primary feast of the Jews was the Passover. This was a feast of remembrance that remembered two aspects concerning the Lord. It remembered that He is the Creator and the Redeemer. In the New Testament, we also have a celebration of remembrance called the Lord’s Supper. In partaking of this ordinance, we remember the same two aspects of God as the Creator of the New Creation and that He is the Redeemer. John Stevenson, “Before It’s Too Late” (Eccl 12:1-8).
479 Cf. Eccl 3:17; 12:14; Matt 10:26; Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:5.
480 Solomon uses the Hebrew phrase translated “evil days” (yom raah) in Eccl 7:14 where the NASB renders it “the day of adversity” (i.e., the singular form of the word “day”). But in this context, Solomon intends his readers to interpret the phrase yom raah as referencing the difficulties of life. He does so, in that verse, by contrasting “the day of adversity” to “the day of prosperity.”
481 Being a wise man, Solomon knows that when we are young we have the strength and resilience to overcome trouble. He also knows that in our old age, we will need every bit of strength we can find just to survive. We will not be able to offer very much to the Lord, we will be in a survival mode. Many of us know people who do not live, they just exist. In those years of our lives, we can certainly represent Christ and point others to Him, but we will never be able to serve the Lord in the capacity that we would have liked.
482 Michael P. Andrus, “Go For It…But Remember” (Eccl 11:7-12:14): unpublished sermon notes.
483 There have been other views: (1) each phrase refers to a different organ of the body; (2) they refer to a storm; (3) they refer to the gradual decay of an estate; and (4) each phrase must be taken separately, some literally, some figuratively. See Robert Gordis, Koheleth, The Man and His World, A Study of Ecclesiastes (), 341.
484 Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 145.
485 Kidner comments, “The clouds will always gather again, and time will no longer heal, but kill.” Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, 102.
486 The verb chashak (“to grow dim”) is used elsewhere in reference to failing eyesight (e.g., Ps 69:24; Lam 5:17). Therefore, the phrase “those who look through the windows” is probably a figurative description of the eyes, picturing failing eyesight at the onset of old age. See NET study notes.
487 Almond blossoms change in color from pink to white and then soon fall to the ground as white snowflakes. A lesser-held view is derived from the similarity of the Hebrew noun for almond tree (shaqed) to that of the Hebrew verb “to be watchful” (saphah). Those who hold this view do so on the basis that the almond tree is understood to be a symbol of watchfulness—a characteristic of older people. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
488 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 298.
489 Some scholars hold that caperberries were used to stimulate one’s appetite and sexual desire. Hence, various versions translate the word as “desire” (i.e., NKJV, NRSV, TEV, NIV).
490 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 299.
492 Man was made of dust (e.g., Eccl 3:20; Gen 2:7; 3:19; Job 4:19; 8:19; 10:9; 34:15; Ps 90:3; 103:14; 104:29; 146:4).
493 The Hebrew word (ruach) can mean “spirit,” “wind” (cf. Eccl 11:5), or “the breath” (cf. 3:2 1; Gen 2:7; Num 16:22; 27:16; Isa 57:16; Zech 12:1).
It is now the second week of June. The end of the school year is nearly upon us. What does this mean? Two words: summer vacation. But before you enjoy your summer vacation, I have two more words for you: final exams. That’s right! GULP! Final exams are a part of life. No student can escape them; they are inevitable. Yet, most people assume that final exams only belong in school. Today, however, we will discover that there are final exams in God’s Word. As we prepare to conclude our course in Ecclesiastes, we are going to be given a final exam. I want you to picture King Solomon at the front of the classroom, passing everyone a copy of the test. “Let’s test your wisdom,” he declares. “Use a number two pencil, and keep your eyes on your own scroll. The test is going to cover all twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. You’ll be asked about life, death, pleasure, suffering, food, work, money, poverty, wisdom, foolishness—pretty much everything ‘under the sun.’” “That’s a lot of material,” you whisper in panic to the fellow in the next seat. “What if I don’t have a clue?” “Whenever you don’t know one, the probable answer is ‘vanity,’” your friend whispers back. “This works every time. When I’m stumped I just write, ‘Life is filled with such questions that can’t be answered. This too is vanity.’ Teacher likes that one.” You mutter, “I hope he was serious when he said that true wisdom is realizing how much we don’t know. If he sticks to that one, I’ll get an A.”
Interestingly, in Solomon’s final exam, he reverses the expected formula. For Solomon it is exam first, lessons later. In school, we study and then take an exam. Solomon claims that in the real world we face the exam, and then we study.495 In Eccl 12:9-14, the final six verses of the book, Solomon gives us two homework assignments to pass life’s exam.
In this first section, we will be reminded of the awesome power of God’s Word. Specifically, in 12:9-10 we discover the time, energy, and skill that went into the writing of Ecclesiastes. Solomon writes, “In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.” Some scholars believe that 12:9-14 are the words of an editor that came along after Solomon penned this great book. Yet, it is more likely that in these verses Solomon speaks in the third person. Practically speaking, this is a simple way of boasting in God’s Word without coming across in an arrogant fashion. In 12:9-10, Solomon describes four activities of a wise sage. These activities are not just true of Solomon, but should be true of all Christian teachers and leaders. As you read through these activities, ask yourself how you can improve in each of these areas.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of a young pastor who rose to preach on Psalm 23. He gave it his best effort but never connected with the audience. Afterward, an old man got up to speak. He bowed his head, his hands quivering, and his body worn from years of hard work. Gripping the podium, he began to recite, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As he finished the audience sat in deep silence, profoundly moved. When the young pastor asked the old man why his words had made such a difference, the old man said simply, “You know the psalm, I know the Shepherd.” The truth is some things are learned only through experience.496
Later in our service Pastor Hilton Jarvis will lead us in communion. Hilton has been a pastor for 49 years. Even now, at the ripe young age of 75 he is still preaching! I am 37 years old and have been in pastoral ministry for 15 years. Do you think that I can and should seek to learn from this man? Of course! His pastoral experience and spiritual maturity far surpass my own. Similarly, is there a man or woman in your life who you respect who can take you to the next level? Perhaps, like Solomon, it is an author you can read, or a preacher you can listen to, or it may even be a person you can meet with on a regular basis. Do so today!
Think about it. Most cults do not outwardly reject God’s Word, but they offer new revelations that add to God’s Word. Most cults are begun by founders disenchanted with the existing church and its beliefs, so they formulate distinctive doctrines to give them a new identity. Individuals do the same. More than ever, people are viewing God’s Word like a buffet line in a restaurant, taking what they like—maybe a little bit of what is good for them—and leaving the rest for someone else. In effect, the diet a person receives is more a matter of what is palatable to them than what will truly nourish them.499Yet, Vance Havner said, “The Word of God is either absolute or obsolete.” Will you proclaim the truth regardless of the consequences? Will you refuse to compromise?
In 12:11-12, Solomon continues to describe how Ecclesiastes can be used in people’s lives. In 12:11 he writes, “The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given500 by one Shepherd.” Solomon states that the words of Ecclesiastes are powerful.501 He uses two memorable metaphors that refer to how Ecclesiastes stimulates us to action.502 “Goads” are long wooden rods with an iron point used for driving oxen and other animals.503 A goad is poked at the animal to make him move in the desired direction. It represents moral guidance and stimulus in human affairs.504 Nails were used by shepherds to fasten their tents. They are hammered to keep something in place. Goads are designed to motivate the sluggish and nails are intended to secure the drifting.505 The book of Ecclesiastes (and the whole of Scripture) accomplishes both of these purposes. It “afflicts the comfortable and it comforts the afflicted.” If you are comfortable with your life, God’s Word acts as a goad to move you out of your comfort zone. It pushes you to do those things you ought to do.506 If you are burdened and tossed to and fro by the winds of life, it provides a haven of stability.507
Ecclesiastes has this type of power because the book is “given by one Shepherd.” In the Old Testament, the title “shepherd” is often used of God.508 Solomon is saying that his words are given straight from God. This is a very strong argument for the inspiration of Ecclesiastes. It seems clear that Solomon went out of his way to emphasize this doctrine because he figured many would have problems with his book. Boy, was he ever right! Some have felt that this book should not have been canonized because of some of the seemingly contradictory verses that appear. But Solomon is clear that this book is from God and it can be trusted in its entirety. I have found this to be true in my own personal experience. My wife, Lori, persuaded me to teach Ecclesiastes. I thought it might be too heavy for the start of a new year. Yet, this book has impacted me more than any other book I’ve studied. It has taught me more about contentment, the brevity of life, and priorities than any other book of the Bible.
Solomon concludes this section in 12:12 with these words: “But beyond this, my son,509 be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”510 This is a favorite verse for high school and college students who are weary of study. But Solomon isn’t telling us not to love and appreciate books. If he was, I would be in deep trouble. The contrast is not between the study of canonical versus noncanonical wisdom but between failure to appreciate wisdom on the one hand and excessive zeal for study on the other.511 Solomon is warning us that we shouldn’t study other books to the exclusion of Scripture. Other books were given for our information, but the Bible was given for our transformation.512 I don’t read many secular works. It’s not that they’re bad; it’s that they’re just eye candy to me. Every time I start reading something outside the Bible, I think about what I am missing: words of eternal life. It’s like that commercial tagline: “I could’ve had a V8.” I could’ve been reading Ecclesiastes.513 I challenge you to make sure that you are consistently reading God’s Word and prioritizing God’s Word over other reading. Do you read the newspaper before you read the Bible? Do you check your email or your favorite web page instead of reading the Bible? We need to be careful not to put human writings above the divine Word of God.
[Why should we take God’s Word seriously? Because God’s Word is powerful and can make an eternal difference in the lives of people. The second homework assignment that Solomon gives is…]
In the final two verses, Solomon urges us to prepare for judgment day by fearing God and keeping His commands. These two verses summarize the book of Ecclesiastes and ultimately the whole of Scripture. In 12:13, the teacher writes these pointed words: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments,because this applies to every person.” To “fear God and keep His commands” are not suggestions or options—they are commands! Solomon commands you and me to fear Him and obey His commands. In other words, take God seriously and do what He says.515 But we need to look at this a little more carefully.
First, the phrase “fear God” is terribly misunderstood and rarely proclaimed; however, it is paramount throughout the Scriptures.516 The Bible speaks of our love to God, His name, His law, and His Word, a total of 88 times. This breaks down to 45 references in the Old and 43 references in the New Testament. The Bible speaks of our trusting in God, His name, and His Word, 91 times. This breaks down to 82 times in the Old and 9 times in the New Testament.517 When we come to the subject of the fear of God, the Bible speaks of it 278 times! I am referring to all of the places in Scripture where it speaks of men fearing God, His name, His Law, or His Word. In the Old Testament there are 235 references to the fear of God. In the New Testament there are 43 references to the fear of God, which, by the way, is the same number of references as man’s love to God.518 So whatever the phrase “fear God” means, it is everywhere throughout the Bible, therefore, it is critical for us to understand.
Typically, the “fear of God” is defined as “reverential awe.” There is truth to this definition as it pertains to God as Creator. I have been to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the Swiss Alps. On each of these occasions when I have gazed on God’s majestic handiwork, I felt small, fearful, and awestruck. God wants us to stand in awe of who He is and all that He is. But our definition of the fear of God must also encompass His judgment (see 12:14). This leads us to also include in our definition downright fear or terror. If you and I understand that our God is a consuming fire that is able to destroy both body and soul in hell and that as believers we will give an account of our lives to Jesus Christ,519 we will have some holy fear. But many of us do not fear God. What do we fear? Among the top ten fears of parents are saving for retirement, dying before the children are grown, gas prices, the threat of terrorism, and traffic.520 It seems that we fear everything and everyone but God. This is sheer insanity! Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) once said, “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”521 This is the way the believer should live.
In Prov 1:7 Solomon writes, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” In Isa 66:2b the Lord declares, “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” The man or woman that God uses most powerfully is the one who expresses both awe and obedience. God longs for you and me to humble our hearts and prostrate our souls before Him. If you and I are to fear God properly, we must have a high view of God. Many years ago, A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
Second, to “keep His commandments” is to obey the Law.522 Fortunately for us, Jesus summed up the commandments into one central, basic command: “To love the Lord your God” and “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:34-40). This is the chief end of humankind. This phrase literally reads, “because this is all of man” or “because this is the all of man.” The implication is that “this is the whole duty of man.”523
If you know me very well, you know that I am not a handyman. Honestly, I’m a complete moron when it comes to doing much of anything. Whenever I have to do anything, I can’t experiment or hope that I find my way. I have to follow the instructions. I am always so impressed with men who can just toss the directions and dive right into a project. Yet, I have seen such men confound themselves and have to return to the discarded directions. Similarly, God created life and He alone knows how it should be managed. He wrote the “instruction manual” and wise is the person who reads and obeys. “When all else fails, read the instructions!”
So why are we called to fear God and obey His commands? In 12:14 Solomon states, “For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden,524whether it is good or evil.”525Winston Churchill’s (1874-1965) epitaph reads, “I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Apparently, Churchill did not understand the fear of God and the judgment that is awaiting him. The Bible teaches that there is an appointed day of judgment where we will have to give an account of our lives. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, God will hold us accountable for our thoughts, motives, words, and deeds.526 Everyone is answerable to God for everything, whether obvious or concealed, good or evil. I find it mildly horrifying that even the hidden things will be judged. The implication is that the glory and reward we enjoy on earth and in eternity will depend on the lives we live here on earth. The natural and inevitable conclusion is that you and I had better live our lives appropriately in light of God’s judgment.
I know many people who struggle with questions of right and wrong—especially in those areas for which we have no explicit guidance in the Bible. They truly want to please the Lord, but worry about their daily decisions. Here’s a simple question that will replace many of the dos and don’ts: Can I do this to God’s glory? That is, if I do this, will it enhance God’s reputation in the world? Will those who watch me know that I know God, from my behavior? Or will I simply have to explain this away or apologize for it later.527
A friend of mine planted a church in Gresham, OR called Coram Deo Fellowship.528Coram Deo is a Latin phrase which means “under the face of God.” It’s a reminder that God is always watching everything we do. His eyes are always on us, nothing escapes His notice, and all of life must be lived for His approval.
For years, the opening of ABC’s The Wide World of Sports illustrated “the agony of defeat” through the painful ending of an attempted ski jump. The skier appeared in good form as he headed down the slope, but then, for no apparent reason, he tumbled head-over-heels off the side of the jump and bounced off the supporting structure. What viewers didn’t know was that he chose to fall. Why? As he explained later, the jump surface had become too fast, and midway down the ramp he realized that if he completed the jump, he would land on the level ground, beyond the safe landing zone, which could have been fatal. As it was, the skier suffered no more than a headache from the tumble. The fear of the slope, the fear of flying too high, and the fear of the fall led him to change course.529
In the same manner, a proper fear of God ought to lead to a course correction. For this passage and the entire book of Ecclesiastes teaches that the fear of God leads to life. A biblical fear of God will lead to life in this world and the world to come. If you think you have been enjoying life, but haven’t been fearing God, think again. The fear of God leads to life…and only the fear of God will lead to life. Today, is there an area of your life that the Lord wants to correct? Will you respond to His goads and nails? Will you rest in your Shepherd and trust that He alone can satisfy you?
2 Corinthians 5:10-11
1 Corinthians 4:5
1. How is the description of Solomon (12:9-10) similar to the description of a scribe’s work in Ezra 7:10? In what way(s) should my life be similar to those of Solomon and Ezra? Even though I am not in vocational ministry, how is the Lord calling me to step up my own spiritual disciplines and public ministry?
2. What is my favorite book besides the Bible? How has this book impacted my spiritual growth? How many books have I read in the past twelve months? In what ways have these books benefitted me? How can I balance my reading of the Bible and my reading of books?
3. What does it mean to “fear God” (12:13)? How would I define this in my own words? Is there an illustration or analogy that I could use? In what ways do I exhibit a fear of God? Where do I need to still grow in this area? Who do I know that really seems to fear God? What can I learn from him or her?
4. Does it seem difficult to “keep God’s commands” (12:13)? Why or why not? How should we understand 1 John 5:3, which says that God’s commandments “are not burdensome?” What about Jesus’ own words, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:30)? How can I make sense of these verses when they do not seem to be true of my experience? In what area of my life do I find it the most difficult to obey God?
5. Am I prepared for my future judgment (12:14)? If Jesus were to come today and I was called to give an account of my life, would I be ready? Does a day of future reckoning motivate me or paralyze me? How can I possess a proper motivation? Read 1 Peter 4:8 and 1 John 4:17-18. What will it take for me to hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matt 25:21, 23)?
494 Copyright © 2008 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
495 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 301-302.
496 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998),
497 The verb “pondered” (azan) is only used here in the OT, but it comes from the same root that comes from “to give ear to.”
498 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 303.
499 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 216.
500 The verb “given” (nathan) is often used in Ecclesiastes to refer to God’s activity (cf. 1:13; 2:26; 3:10; 5:18, 19; 6:2; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7, 11).
501 Heb 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” In 2 Tim 3:16-17, Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
502 Goads are temporary; while nails are permanent.
503 The form darebonah (“goads”) is found only here.
504 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
505 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 124.
506 Wisdom Literature was to be a guide and discipline from God to challenge and encourage humans in this life and point them to the next.
507 Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
508 See Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1; 80:1; 95:7; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11. Jewish tradition identifies “the one shepherd” with Moses (i.e., Targums, Rashi). However, Moses is never called shepherd, but he does carry the “rod of God” (shepherd’s staff). Moses also warned of not adding or taking away from God’s revealed truths (cf. Deut 4:2; 12:32).
509 In Israel’s Wisdom Tradition the teacher was called “father” and his male students “sons” (cf. Prov 1:8; 4:1).
510 The verbal “excessive” (lahag) is used twice in this verse: (1) making of many books; (2) excessivedevotion.
The noun is found only here in the OT. In Arabic it means “to be devoted,” “to be attached,” or “to apply oneself assiduously to something.” It is uncertain if (1) the writing; (2) compiling; or (3) study of books is the focus of the warning. The problem is that human wisdom is helpful, but not ultimate!
511 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs
512 Ruth Bell Graham was once asked the best way to become wise. Her reply, “Read, read, read—but use the Bible as home base.” Quoted in Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 305.
513 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 199.
514 Some scholars argue that Eccl 12:13-14 was added by some late redactor wanting to make sure Ecclesiastes remained in the scriptural canon. Yet, there is no manuscript evidence to suggest that this alleged pious ending was dropped into place. All available manuscripts reflect the present ending, so the supposition of its being an addition must remain just that: a supposition. See Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 296.
515 To “fear God” is one of the major themes of wisdom literature in the OT:
516 The admonition to “fear God” is a repeated theme (cf. Eccl 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13).
517 We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that because it is mentioned so many times in the OT, that it is not really important today, we must understand that the NT assumes what the OT has already established. So, the NT assumes such virtues as trusting in God because it was clearly taught in the OT.
518 See David Fairchild, “Well-Driven Nails” (Eccl 12:9-14): http://www.kaleochurch.com/sermon/Well-driven-Nails.
519 Heb 12:29; Matt 10:28; 2 Cor 5:10.
520 “The Parenting Fear Factor”: http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=1143. Data collected from Little Grad, the Saving for College Company.
521 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, Electronic Ed.
522 The terms “fear” and “commandments” appear together in Ps 112:1. Some question whether the phrase “keep His commands” is in keeping with Solomon’s theology. However, a review of Ecclesiastes reveals exhortations to obey the king’s commands (8:5a; cf. 8:2), which is akin to submitting to God. Furthermore, the motivation to obey the king (8:5b-6a) is the same motivation to fear God—impending judgment (12:14; cf. 3:15b, 17; 11:9c).
523 The Westminster Confession captures the same essence of this statement when it says, “This is the chief end of man.”
524 The verb “hidden” (alam) refers to intentional and unintentional sins (cf. Ps 19:12; 90:8; 139:23-24).
525 Glenn argues that this judgment only refers to earth and not eternity. Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 1006-7.
526 This anticipates Paul’s words in 2 Cor 5:10 where he writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
527 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 306.
529 Preaching Today citation: Jeff Arthurs, “Clearing the Debris,” PreachingToday.com.