Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:3
Good morning! Please turn to the book of Ecclesiastes chapter 3. Pastor Kit has been leading the new members class for the past couple of weeks, so he hasn’t been in here; but on Monday, he and I were talking about last week’s Sunday school lesson, and he asked me, “Did you reference the song?” I said, “What song?” He said, “Turn, Turn, Turn”! I said, “I think I’ve heard of it before.” So you were all humming that song while I was teaching last week, and I didn’t even have a clue! J
If I said the name “Stephen Paddock,” do you know who that is? Stephen Paddock was the gunman in the massacre that took place in Las Vegas two weeks ago. In the days leading up to the shooting, Paddock carried more than 10 suitcases full of guns and ammo up to his hotel room on the 32nd floor of his hotel room. On the evening of the 1st, he broke out the window of his hotel room and opened fire into a crowd below, killing 58 and wounding 489. I was looking at a USA Today news article last week that listed pictures and bios for each of the 58 people who were killed. A stay-at-home mom with 3 young children. A man who was with his wife celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary. A special ed. teacher. A 20-year-old nursing student. An off-duty police officer. The stories are heartbreaking.
Do you ever struggle knowing how to respond to news stories like these? I know I do. If a story really bothers me, I might be tempted to avoid it altogether. Or if it doesn’t bother me that much, I might feel guilty and try to work up some emotion. Another extreme is to become so upset about stories like these that you have a hard time enjoying what God has given you! In today’s passage, we’ll see a proper way to respond to the evils in this world—one in which we do not ignore the suffering around us, but we commit the situation to God with humility and faith. Let’s read the text together (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3).
TRANSITION: The question that I want to consider today is this: “How can I be happy while other people are suffering?” First, I want you to notice the reality of suffering.
II. The reality of suffering
Today’s passage is bookended by two very observations. The first observation is found in 3:16 (3:16). So Solomon’s first observation has to do with injustice. But it’s not just the fact that injustice is taking place that bothers Solomon. It’s specifically where that injustice takes place that troubles him. According to v. 16, where did Solomon observe injustice? (in “the place of judgment” or “the place of righteousness”) Solomon observed that in the place where justice was supposed to prevail, wickedness often got the upper hand. Does this kind of thing still happen today? Can you give me an example? (Think the Supreme Court, which has ruled in favor of abortion on multiple occasions!)
The second observation that Solomon makes is in 4:1 (4:1). What did Solomon observe according to this verse? In this verse, Solomon observed oppression—the strong taking advantage weak: people who can’t defend themselves and have no one else to defend them, either. Solomon references the tears of these poor people and states twice that they had no one to comfort them. Like no one cared. Does this kind of thing go on today? Can you give me some examples? (Think bullying, domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, and the list goes on and on.)
I want to read to you the first couple paragraphs of a CNN article that was published on September 20. It’s about human trafficking. Karla Jacinto is sitting in a serene garden. She looks at the ordinary sights of flowers and can hear people beyond the garden walls, walking and talking in Mexico City. She looks straight into my eyes, her voice cracking slightly, as she tells me the number she wants me to remember -- 43,200. By her own estimate, 43,200 is the number of times she was raped after falling into the hands of human traffickers. She says up to 30 men a day, seven days a week, for the best part of four years -- 43,200. Her story highlights the brutal realities of human trafficking in Mexico and the United States, an underworld that has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Mexican girls like Karla. Human trafficking has become a trade so lucrative and prevalent, that it knows no borders and links towns in central Mexico with cities like Atlanta and New York.
And the article goes on.
Now, if that paragraph doesn’t make your heart ache and your blood boil, there’s something wrong with you. But the tragic fact is that stuff like this goes on all the time, all over the world. The question is, how will we respond? Let’s take a look at how Solomon responded to oppression (4:1-3). How do we respond to suffering? #1, don’t ignore it. We see in these verses that Solomon is agonizing over this situation—so much so that he says, “Those who have already died are better off than those who are still alive” because they’re no longer have to deal with situations like this. But not only that, there’s also a third group that Solomon refers to as the happier still. Who are they? (the ones who have not yet been born) And why is that this group better off than either of the other two? (Because they have not yet been forced to suffer at all, whereas those who have already died had to suffer prior to their death.) Solomon is really struggling here! And his struggle is actually very similar to that of several other Old Testament characters.
Take Moses, for instance. In Numbers 11, the children of Israel complain to Moses about God’s provision. They say, “Back in Egypt, we ate fish freely, and cucumbers, and melons, and onions, and garlic; but now all we have is this stupid manna! We want meat!” Here’s how Moses responds.
So Moses said to the Lord, “…Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers?... I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight…!”
Moses is so overwhelmed with the burden of leadership that he says, “Lord, if this is how it’s going to be, just kill me now.”
Elijah said something very similar after his showdown with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. I’m sure he expected everything to change after what God did; but instead, Ahab remained on the throne and Jezebel threatened to kill him! We read about this in 1 Kings 19.
Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life…. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
In response to his perceived failure along with mental and physical exhaustion, Elijah asks for God to take his life.
But the list of Bible characters who wanted to die doesn’t stop there. Consider the words of Job in Job 3.
And Job spoke, and said:
“May the day perish on which I was born,
And the night in which it was said,
‘A male child is conceived.’
4 May that day be darkness;
May God above not seek it,
Nor the light shine upon it….
10 Because it did not shut up the doors of my mother’s womb,
Nor hide sorrow from my eyes.
Job goes on like this for the rest of the chapter.
Finally, consider the example of Jeremiah, who said this after Pashur the priest put him in stocks for a day.
Cursed be the day in which I was born!
Let the day not be blessed in which my mother bore me!
15 Let the man be cursed
Who brought news to my father, saying,
“A male child has been born to you!”
Making him very glad.
16 And let that man be like the cities
Which the Lord overthrew, and did not relent…
17 Because he did not kill me from the womb,
That my mother might have been my grave,
And her womb always enlarged with me.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb to see labor and sorrow,
That my days should be consumed with shame?
My point in citing these passages is to show you that the response we see from Solomon in chapter 4 is not uncommon in the Old Testament. We see it often from those who face tremendous suffering. And on one hand, we can understand why these characters felt the way they did. If we were in their shoes, we might want to die, too! However, even though responses like these are understandable given the circumstances, we see that God doesn’t intend for His people to remain in this sort of state. If you read my blog post last week, this is an example of a situation in which “it’s okay not to be okay.” Like Moses, Elijah, Job, and Jeremiah, Solomon finds suffering to be so awful that he cries out, “It’s better to be dead than alive!” Any questions about that?
Before we move on, I want to highlight a couple more lessons this passage teaches us about suffering.
First, suffering is not only difficult to experience; it’s difficult to observe! Notice that there is something that sets Solomon apart from the other four Bible characters mentioned. Those characters lamented over their own suffering; Solomon is lamenting over the suffering of others. Solomon is not being oppressed; he’s living in the lap of luxury! He’s not experiencing injustice; he is the supreme court! And yet, we see from this passage that there is a type of mental anguish a person experiences when he witnesses the suffering of others. That’s why one of the worst forms of torture is forcing someone to watch his own loved ones suffer. Remember Zedekiah, the last king of Judah? What did the Babylonians do to him when they finally got ahold of him? They killed his sons before his eyes. Solomon says in effect, “I feel like Zedekiah, because I have to witness all of the suffering that goes on in this world.” Even though he’s not actually the one being beaten or murdered or raped, it still makes him hurt all over. So suffering is not only difficult to experience; it’s difficult to observe.
But I also want you to see from this passage that suffering is often beyond our ability to control.
Some people would say, “Solomon, you’re the king! If this situation troubles you, then do something about it!” But it’s just not that simple! Oppression like this take place behind closed doors and in dark alleys; Solomon has no way of knowing about them! The same goes for the instances of injustice. Now, certainly, there were some things that Solomon could And I think it’s safe to assume that if Solomon did know about a specific instance of injustice or oppression, he would have done everything in his power to stop it! So this is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to oppression or refuse to help those in need; not at all! But even the king of Israel can’t just waive his magic wand and make it all go away! Much of the injustice and oppression that was taking place in the world was happening in other countries that were outside Solomon’s jurisdiction! Solomon couldn’t control the things that were going on outside his borders!
And even in the 21st century, despite all of our efforts to work together with other countries to ensure peace and justice, we still run into the same limitations. The U.N. discusses human rights violations, but we’re not in a position to force other countries to respect the rights of their own citizens! And we as individuals are likewise limited when it comes to these kinds of issues. There are certain steps we can take; but in the end, we are powerless to make it stop!
In fact, it’s precisely because of our lack of control that we throw up our hands and lament! If it were simply a matter of fixing the problem, Solomon would never have been driven to such dark moments of anger and grief! If Zedekiah could have saved his sons, he would have! But the sobering reality is that we’re not in control, and that is one of the hard and humbling lessons from the book of Ecclesiastes.
So the question is, “How can I be happy when so many people are suffering?” and the first part of the answer is that God doesn’t ask you to ignore the suffering. The answer is not just to block it all out so that you can live in your own fairy tale world. That response would be unrealistic and perhaps even unfeeling. But that raises the question, if we’re not just supposed to block it all out, what are we supposed to do?
III. They way to be happy while others suffer is to be humble and trust God (vv. 16-22).
In vv. 16-22, Solomon responds to the injustice he observes by talking to himself. There are basically two things that he says to himself. What’s the first one? (“God shall judge the righteous and the wicked.”) Solomon is comforting himself with the fact that everyone will be judged by God someday. It may seem like the recipients of injustice have nowhere to turn; but in reality, there is a higher court of appeals in which their cases will one day be heard. Nobody’s case is going to get overlooked. God has time for everyone; and in His perfect court, every wrong will be righted and perfect justice will prevail.
How can Solomon be so sure that this judgment will take place? Does he possess any empirical evidence? Can the existence of this judgment be deduced by human logic? No! He simply accepts this truth by faith! That brings us to this point: one of the keys to coping with the reality of evil in this world is to have a faith perspective. You must view the evening news through the lens of Scripture. When you hear about some horrible atrocity that has taken place, and a sense of righteous indignation wells up inside of you, remember that God will judge the righteous and the wicked.
In regards to something like the Vegas shooting, you may think, “How can that man ever be brought to justice? I mean, the cost of his own life pales in comparison to all of the damage that he did! That is what you may be tempted to think, but this verse indicates that one day, Stephen Paddock will be brought to perfect justice. He isn’t going to “get away with” anything. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?
But here’s something that’s even more sobering: we’ve all sinned against an infinitely holy God, and we will all give an account to Him someday. You may not have killed anyone, like Stephen Paddock did, but when we consider what the Bible says about sin, we realize that we’re not much better off than him! Jesus said that whoever says to his brother “You fool!” will be in danger of hell fire. James said that whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, is guilty of all. You see, the assurance of perfect justice can be a very scary thing—not only for criminals, but also for victims, because in God’s eyes, we are all sinners; and unless we deal with our own offenses before Him, none of us will get off the hook! So what’s the solution? The solution is Christ! He died for your sins so that instead of justice, you could receive mercy! If you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, please come and talk to me after the service. I would love to show you from the Bible how your sins can be forgiven so that when you stand before God, you will have nothing to fear. Christian, praise God today that instead of justice, you received mercy.
That’s the first thing Solomon said to himself—God will judge the righteous and he wicked. What’s the second thing he said to himself (v. 18)? Solomon’s first response of faith was forward-looking, in the sense that it had to do with end-times judgment. This second response has to do with how God uses injustice here and now. God uses suffering to humble mankind with a sense of his own mortality. The word “tests” in v. 18 is often translated “purifies” or “purges.” So the question is, what does injustice purge out of us? I think the answer is pride. One of the commentators I read this week said that being the victim of injustice makes people feel how low they really rank.
God uses injustice to show us that we are mortal (vv. 18-20). In common with the animals, we share “the breath of the Spirit of life.” We both have to breathe. One day, my dog Summer will take her last breath. And one day, unless Jesus comes first, so will I. Me and Summer share that in common. And not only that, but we share the same destiny in terms of our physical bodies! Whether through cremation or burial or whatever, both of our bodies will end up as dust. Solomon says, “All are from the dust and all return to dust.”
Now, there may be hundreds of warning signals going off in your head right now. What about the image of God in man that separates us from the animals? What about “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”? What about the resurrection of our physical bodies? Stop. Breathe. Don’t read too much into what Solomon is saying here. Solomon knows the Bible. He knows that there is a difference between mankind and the animals, that much is clear, even from this passage! So Solomon is not denying one of the key doctrines of Scripture. Rather, he’s just making a simple point: like the animals, we are mortal. And that fact should humble us.
The similarities between mankind and the animals are so great that in v. 21, Solomon says that many people assume something. They assume that us and the animals must share the same fate—that when people die, they just die, and that’s the end of it. By the way, is this still a common idea today? Sure it is! We see it all the time! This is nothing new! It was around in Solomon’s day. The question is, does Solomon believe this? To answer that, turn over to Ecclesiastes 12:7 (12:7). Clearly, Solomon believed in life after death. So you say why then in Ecclesiastes 3:21 does he reference this common belief that the fate of man and the animals is the same? And here’s my answer. Are you ready? I think it’s because this widespread belief supports his point that mankind and the animals are a lot alike. If we weren’t both mortal, people wouldn’t make that mistake. But they do make that mistake, which proves that we actually have more in common with the animals than we would probably care to admit. The only way to know for sure that there’s life after death is to hear it from God. I hope that makes sense.
So what two things do we need to accept by faith when observing the evils in this world? #1: everyone will be judged by God someday. #2, we must accept by faith that God uses suffering to humble mankind with a sense of his own mortality.
I’d like to close by talking briefly about the importance of humility in all of this. Think about this: if God allows injustice in order to humble mankind, that must mean that humility is more important than a comfortable life here and now. In God’s eyes, it is more important that I come face-to-face with his own mortality than it is that I not suffer injustice. That’s an amazing thought, isn’t it? Why is humility so important? The text doesn’t say, but the answer is clear based on other passages of Scripture. Humility is so important because it is only when we are humbled, that we turn to God for help. God uses the reality of injustice in this world to draw men and women to Himself. Humility is the key that unlocks God’s grace. And since we’ve already established that the only source of genuine satisfaction is grace, then it would follow that humility is more important than anything else, and that in some mysterious way, God is good to allow suffering in order to teach us humility. These are big concepts.
What are the benefits of humble faith? When a person humbles himself before God and trusts His Word by faith, he is finally free to rejoice (v. 22a). You say, “But Pastor Kris, that seems so trite! How can I possibly relax and enjoy myself while others are suffering?” Once again, everything hangs on this faith perspective! When we understand that justice will be served and that God is using the evil to bring about His own good purposes, we can stop trying to play God and relax! That doesn’t mean that we do nothing, but we trust God! That’s not hardness of heart; it’s humility. Pride says, “I should be able to fix this”; so if I can’t, so I’m upset! Humility says, “This is in God’s hands, and I’m going to trust Him.”
The final aspect of humility that we see in v. 22 is the recognition that you don’t know what’s going to happen on earth after you die. Solomon says, “For who can bring him to see what will be after him?” A very similar question appears in 6:12, in which Solomon says, “Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?” Once again, the common theme is “You’re not in control!” You don’t know what’s going to happen after you die. All that money you saved up like a scrooge may just dissipate. So you might as well relax and enjoy what you have in appropriate ways right now.” This idea can obviously be taken too far. But Solomon is preaching against self-importance, the notion of control, and the stinginess that absolutely robs people of joy here and now.
How can we be happy when so many people are suffering? God doesn’t ask us to ignore the suffering, but He does ask us to relinquish our pride and trust Him. That is the only way to find true happiness.