December 10, 2017 Series: Ecclesiastes
Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:1-14
Good morning! Please turn in your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 7. We’re now into part 2 of Ecclesiastes. You might remember from last week that 6:10 is the middle verse in the book. Part 1 focuses on enjoying life, whereas part 2 focuses more on understanding life. There’s more to it than that, but that’s a simple way to say it. I was struck this week by how different this passage feels than anything else we’ve studied so far. In fact, if I were just to read the passage and make you guess the reference, I bet many of you would assume that I was reading from Proverbs. In 6:12, Solomon asked the question, “Who knows what is good for man in life?” And of course, the answer to that question was what? Only God knows what is good for us, but He’s revealed it through His Word. Now, in chapter 7, Solomon begins to flesh that out a little bit more. He begins building us up, which is actually a nice change, because throughout chapters 1-6, it’s felt like he’s tearing us down! He’s been harping over and over on the fact that “you can’t do it!” You can’t achieve satisfaction in life! The odds are stacked so high against you that there’s no way you will ever make that work! It doesn’t matter what path you take—whether business, or scholarship, or pleasure, or prudence—they’re all dead ends! You can’t outrun vanity; it will always catch up with you. And what’s more than that, you’re human! You’re mortal! You’re going to die, and you’re really not all that important. Why such a negative message? What do you think Solomon is trying to accomplish? He’s breaking us down in order to build us back up again, because humility is the first step to growth. It’s kind of like the concept of getting someone lost so that you can get them saved. It’s hard to witness to someone who doesn’t recognize his need of a Savior. That’s where the law comes in to humble and convict us. When we come to the end of ourselves, we’re finally ready for grace. The difference between Ecclesiastes 6 and Ecclesiastes 7 is not as pronounced as that, but I think it parallels that paradigm. Now that Solomon has proved to us that our own efforts won’t cut it, he instructs us in wisdom, or the fear of the LORD. He shows us how to live a life that is not only enjoyable, but also meaningful. My main point today is simple: “Be wise.” Let’s read Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 (Eccl 7:1-14).
This passage is all about wisdom. Perhaps the main point is found in vv. 11-12 (vv. 11-12). I love how Solomon puts this in v. 11. Have you ever been forced to make a really hard either/or decision? In v. 11, you’ve got money on the one hand and wisdom on the other. Which does Solomon say you should choose? Choose both! “Wisdom is good with an inheritance”—they go well together! So despite all of the warnings Solomon gave about pursuing wealth, he doesn’t think its evil. It’s just not a worthy life pursuit! It’s not bad to have money; but if you try to live for money, it will ruin your life! Do you see the distinction there? Do you see why Solomon would want to place the warning before the instruction? If he started out by saying, “Money is actually a good thing, and it can be a very useful tool,” we might have gotten the wrong impression and placed too much value on it. He needed to challenge our worldview before instructing us. But now that our worldview has been challenged, he says, “Money is good. It’s good to get an inheritance.” What is the benefit of money according to v. 12? (It’s a defense.) How could a person use money to defend himself? (emergency fund, insurance, retirement savings, medical care, security system, etc.) Of course, wisdom is also a defense. There are all kinds of dangers in this world that can be avoided if a person follows God’s way! Can you think of any examples? (lung cancer, heart disease, divorce, jail time, a bad marriage, rebellious children, debt—the list is almost limitless!). It’s also easy to see how money and wisdom go well together! If you don’t have wisdom, you won’t spend your money on the right things! So, “Wisdom is good with an inheritance.” So when faced with the choice between money and wisdom, Solomon says, “Choose both!” However, if must choose one or the other, which one should you choose and why? (v. 12) Both wisdom and money are good; but wisdom is better. A person’s ability to enjoy “the good life” as Solomon describes it, is based upon on how wise he is, not how rich he is. A man with wisdom but not money can live a very satisfying life, because he will heed God’s warnings and instructions. Whereas a man with money but not wisdom will fall into the traps that Solomon described in chapters 1-6. Does that make sense?
TRANSITION: Now, having said all of that, I’d like for us to answer the “how” question, because that is what Solomon does in this passage. The command is “Be wise,” but how?
Pursue a good reputation (v. 1).
What’s Solomon talking about when he refers to a person’s name? (his reputation) Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, Loving favor rather than silver and gold.” Of course, Ecclesiastes 7:1 uses the image of precious ointment or perfume. That’s obviously a symbol of wealth in this context, but there may also be more to it than that. In ancient times, the dead bodies of the wealthy would often be anointed with costly perfume. So Solomon may be saying, “It’s better to finish out life with a good reputation than to have lots of money for a fancy funeral. It’s more significant when people to stand up at your funeral and give a testimony than it is when you’re buried in a fancy coffin.
But the tricky thing about this verse is the second half of it. What does it say? (The day of death is better than the day of one’s birth.) What on earth does that have to do with a good reputation? Is this just Solomon being Eeyore again? I don’t think so. Here’s what I think he’s saying. “Ending life with a good reputation is better than starting life with lots of opportunities to enjoy yourself.” We all know that a person can live an exemplary life for many years only to ruin his reputation later in life. You don’t have to watch the news for very long to figure that out. And the Bible has a lot to say about perseverance. You can’t give up till you cross the finish line or else the other team may come back and beat you.
So what Solomon seems to be doing in this verse is encouraging a marathon mentality rather than a buffet mentality. Some people view life like a buffet, in which the goal is to taste as many pleasures as possible before you die. If you view life like this, then it’s always to be young, with the opportunities for pleasure ahead of you. But if you view life like a marathon, then it’s actually better be in a good spot near the finish line than it is to be crouching in the starting blocks preparing to run the race. Does that make sense? It’s a total paradigm shift for many people, and a very fitting way for Solomon to launch into this section about wisdom.
Attend funerals (vv. 2-4).
These verses describe two houses: the house of mourning and the house of feasting, or the house of mirth. How would you describe these two houses? The house of mourning would be the house of a loved one where family and friends gather to mourn for a week after the death. The house of feasting or the house of mirth would be your typical party house. “Forget all your cares, and live in the moment. Drink away your troubles. Do what feels good. Have a good time.” That’s basically the idea.
So why is it better to go to the house of mourning? #1, because death “is the end of all men” (v. 2). Everyone is going to die; that includes you. But that still doesn’t explain why it’s better to go to the funeral, so let’s look at the next phrase (v. 2). One commentator says, “Every funeral anticipates your own.” It’s hard to sit through a funeral without thinking about the realities of life and death and wondering if you’re living well.
Verse 3 says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.” Astute students of Ecclesiastes will note how this verse seems to contradict other verses in the book, like 11:10, which says, “Therefore remove sorrow from your heart… For childhood and youth are vanity.” So which is it? Am I supposed to be sad, or am I supposed to put away sadness? The problem with that question is that its overly simplistic. Life is complicated. It’s not as easy as saying, “Always be sad,” or “Always be happy.” Sometimes we even experience a mix of emotions. So here’s what I would say. In 11:10, Solomon counsels young people to put away unnecessary sorrow or vexation. But here, we find that some sorrow or vexation (like the contemplation of death) is necessary. So there are hard things that we ought to avoid. and there are things we ought to look long at so that we learn important lessons.
Illustration: Holocaust Museum – Solomon would not say, “Life is too short to ruin a good afternoon at the Holocaust Museum.” No! He wants us to consider things like that so that we will learn and grow.
Listen to rebuke (vv. 5-7).
These verses go right along with vv. 2-4. It’s better to go to a funeral than a party, and it’s better to hear the rebuke of a wise man than to listen to the laughter and singing of fools. What’s wrong with the singing and laughing of fools, according to v. 6? (It’s like the crackling of thorns under a pot.) When we cleared out our weeds last spring, I saved one of the black trash bags full and we used it throughout the summer as fire starter, whenever we made fires. Have you ever burnt a tumbleweed or maybe even an armful of pine needles? How does it burn? (very fast, very smoky and smelly, lots of fire, but not much heat, etc.) It can be kind of annoying to sit around a campfire full of pine needles, can’t it? The smoke gets in your eyes—it’s frustrating. How is that like a fool’s laughter? Thorns are pretty much worthless when it comes to making a fire that will last and be good for something. One commentator said, “Thistles provide quick flames, little heat, and a lot of unpleasant noise.” The same is true of the fool’s laughter. It’s empty! It might seem fun for a while, but it doesn’t accomplish anything! It’s very short-lived, and it’s even kind of annoying!
Burning thorn bushes or pine needles is a very attractive activity for whom? (little boys, who like the excitement and immediate gratification) In the same way, the carefree, party lifestyle is very seductive to young people. Why? Because here’s someone who’s having fun and is promising me instant gratification! “Mom and Dad just rebuke me all day, but these guys really know how to have a good time.” Solomon says, “Beware!” It’s better to hear rebuke from wise people than to listen to the songs and laughter of fools.
Verse 7 is an interesting verse in that it’s difficult to know how it relates to its context. The way it’s phrased seems to imply that it goes along with vv. 5-6, but commentators struggle to understand the correlation. The verse itself seems to be a sort of warning that outside pressures can turn a wise man into a fool. This can happen in a couple of ways. For one thing, oppression (or maybe we could even persecution) can pressure him into sin. But on the other hand, a bribe could smear his character and defile his conscience. In other words, one of these pressures is a “push” and the other is a “pull”; but in the end, they both have the same effect: the wise man “sells his soul,” so to speak. So how does this verse relate to its context? Here’s the best I could come up with. I didn’t read this per say in any of the commentaries I consulted, so take it with a grain of salt. Verse 7 is another reason to obey v. 5. Why is it so important that I listen to rebuke? Because no matter how wise you are, you’re prone to corruption, and rebuke helps to keep you on track. Do you see that?
Be patient (vv. 8-9).
These are fascinating verses. Verse 8 starts out by encouraging perseverance. It says, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning.” In other words, “Are things hard right now? Just stick with it, and it will get better. Don’t give up, and you’ll reap the rewards of your labor.” In context, this is an encouragement to endure and see the blessings of wisdom. “I know you’d rather listen to the songs of fools. But stay on the path of wisdom, and you’ll find it’s worth it in the end.” In my own life, I’ve found this to be true, and I look forward to seeing how it proves true even more in the future. I remember looking at a friend of mine in high school who wasn’t walking with God, but he had friends, he seemed to make lots of money without working very hard, and sin seemed to be paying off for him. But I would never trade my life for his at this point. Because as I knew mentally back then, and now know from experience and from working with others, “The way of transgressors is hard.” But the man who walks with God will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water. When they first sprout, you don’t see much difference between the tumbleweed and the tree. But give it 10 years, and there’s really no comparison, because the tumbleweed is long gone, whereas the tree is just coming into its own. Of course, ultimately, those who reject Christ will suffer for all eternity in hell, whereas those who know Him will flourish in His presence forever. There really isn’t any comparison. So we need endurance.
But we also need another aspect of that word “patience.” We need to be longsuffering. Verse 8b says, “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” There’s a Hebrew wordplay there that doesn’t really translate into English. Basically, “The long in spirit is better than the high in spirit.” It’s better to be patient than to be proud. And then v. 9 goes on to talk about the importance of being slow to anger. It reminds us of verses like Prov 14:29: “He who isslow to wrath has great understanding, But he who is impulsive exalts folly.” And that’s just one of the many verses in Proverbs that warn against being quick-tempered. So we need the kind of the patience that sticks with wisdom over the long haul. But we also need the kind of patience that does not flare up every time something doesn’t go our way. What sin is at the root of anger, do you think? (pride) Take a look at the end of v. 8. It’s often pride that’s at the root of anger. “Why are these idiots messing everything up?” What’s the assumption behind a question like that? “If I were in charge, things would go a lot better.” Sometimes I think people who think like that just need to be in charge for a couple of days so that they see how hard it actually is. The higher an opinion I have of myself, the less tolerant I am with others. The lower opinion I have of myself, the more tolerant I am with others. I have found that in my life, there are times where I find myself developing a hyper-critical spirit. I’ve come to regard that as a “check engine light.” If I find myself being critical of others a lot, that means I need to get alone with God, read the Bible, pray, journal, and figure out where the pride is. Because that’s almost always the problem.
One of the things that people can say when they’re impatient and irritated is found in v. 10 (v. 10). How many of you have ever found yourself saying something like this? Just raise your hand. “When I was a kid, I would never even think of doing that! Things were so much better back then! Why can’t we just go back to the good old days!” People say stuff like this all the time. Here we have a command from Solomon not to ask that question. Now, this is not to say that we can’t learn from the past or ask critical questions. And it’s also not that we devalue the experiences of older people who have gained so much wisdom through the years. Instead, this is about being impatient or angry with things as they are now. This is about throwing up your hands and saying, “Why were the former days better than these!?” Does that make sense? Why do you think it’s unwise to ask that question?
For one, we can often fall prey to a romanticized view of the past. It’s very easy to forget the bad the bad things and just focus on the good things. We do this when it comes to our own life stories, and we even do it when it comes to history. For instance, someone might think, “Man, I just wish I could go back to the Colonial days. Things must have been nice back then! I mean, America was a Christian nation!” Ya but in those days, they didn’t have running water or electricity, women died in childbirth and children died at a young age all the time, the spread of disease was much more of a problem than it is today, and I think you would find that the number of real genuine Christians was actually much lower than we might assume. So the problem with the good old days is that they didn’t exist. Every age comes with a unique set of difficulties and opportunities.
Another problem with asking about the former days is that if you’re constantly dwelling in the past, you hamstring your ability to do good in the present. The fact is that we can’t go back there. We can’t uninvent the things that have been invented. We can’t un-write the books. We can’t undo the history. Instead, we’ve got to focus on obeying God today in the real context in which we live.
Finally, asking about the former days can actually be a way of smearing God’s providence. You see, God is in control. But when we’re constantly angry or worried about the way things are, we’re acting as if that isn’t true. Granted, there is lots of sin in this world. Things are really bad. But God is still on His throne. That part hasn’t changed one bit over the past 2,000 years. So through good times and bad, we ought to give Him praise.
Does that make sense? Any questions or comments about that?
TRANSITION: That brings us to our last point. “Let providence keep you humble.”
Let providence keep you humble (vv. 13-14).
Verse 13 implies that no one can straighten what God has made crooked. Now we know that ultimately, sin made this world crooked, and God is not responsible for sin. And yet the Bible does teach that God allows sin, which means He is in control of it. So in that sense, God does make things crooked. And we cannot fix them. So what do we do? Well, in the day of prosperity, we rejoice, and enjoy God’s gifts. And then when trouble comes, we consider, in order to learn the lessons He has for us. And we recognize that God made one as well as the other. As Job said to his wife when she told him to curse God and die, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” He said, “If we’re going to accept God’s blessings, we’ve got to take the heartaches, too.” God’s in control, and He’s doing what He deems best. He has reasons for what He does. What is one of God’s reasons, according to v. 14? He wants to keep us guessing in terms of the future. He doesn’t want us to be become proud and self-reliant. So He creates a situation in which we must depend on Him every single day, because we never know what a day may bring forth. Not that we are always bracing for some sort of tragedy, but that we relinquish control and just humbly trust Him. That is the place is of greatest blessing for us.