Instructions from the Grave
Ecclesiastes 6:10-12 (ESV)
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 (ESV)
A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Verses 11-12 raises a few questions. While there are actually 3 questions here, thematically there are only two:
- Who knows what is good for us? This question is answered in Ecclesiastes 7:1-12
- Who can tell what will happen to us? This question is answered in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14
What’s the Good?
Instead of babbling on to ourselves and others about what might benefit us in “the few days” of our transient lives, we come to listen to God’s eternal perspective. It is important to remember that our lives pass like a shadow:
O LORD, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow. Psalm 144:3-4 (NIV)
In chapter 7 verses 1-12 Pastor Solomon provides some pithy proverbs, using the Hebrew word tov (translated “good” or “better”) 9 times, telling us what is good for us, or what is better than something else. There are 7 “better than” comparisons, which we can divide into 2 scenes:
- (v. 1 – 4) Going to a funeral
- (v. 5 – 12) Coming to a fork in the road where we can choose between two pathways:
- The walkway of wisdom
- The footpath of folly
Going to a Funeral
The 1st scene takes place at a funeral. In this section, we read twice that attending a “house of mourning” is better than going to “the house of feasting and pleasure”:
A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Eccl. 7:1-4 NIV)
The author points out that these teachings are counterintuitive, and are reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes. Jesus didn’t label the courageous, the funny, the intelligent, and the attractive “blessed”. Rather, He attached that title to those who mourn, are persecuted, and are poor in spirit:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:3-5
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12
Do not underestimate the divinely appointed opportunity that every funeral allows. Outside each funeral home God holds up His picket signs:
- “Life is brief.”
- “Death is inevitable.”
- “Walk wisely!”
- “Redeem the time!”
- “How are you spending your time?”
The author admonishes us to ponder the questions “What will be said of you when people gather at the house of mourning to mourn over you? Will you be remembered as someone wise or foolish?”
As much as our culture is a culture of death (violent video games, violent crime, abortion, etc.), nevertheless we deny death when it gets uncomfortably close. This is shown in our language when we say compassionately, “She has passed away” or “gone to a better place” or, crudely, “He has kicked the bucket”. The author quotes Walker Percy from The Second Coming:
“The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps … works, grows old, gets sick, and dies … takes his comfort and ease, …watches TV, drinks his drink, [and] laughs … as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries [not] turning to chalk, his brain cells [not] dying by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all”
So, the Apostle Paul tells us that death is an enemy:
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)
But death is also an evangelist. Death is the great mentor for diligence, sobriety, love, generosity, reverence and humility. Death forces the most profound questions to be asked, but mercilessly mocks those who sleep through its lessons. Death is like a detox clinic. It sobers us up!
When we go to a funeral, we should think deeply about the state and course of our lives. Who are we? What have we done with our lives? How will we stand before God?
So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12 NIV)
In light of Christ’s trampling down of death by His death, we see death differently. Death is not the exit to extinction, but the entrance to eternity. Sure, our bodies are wasting away, but it is also true that our inner nature is being renewed day by day:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18 NIV)
Thus we affirm with Paul:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21 NIV)
Likewise, we affirm with Solomon that “the day of death” is better than “the day of birth” (Eccl. 7:1).
Traveling the Road Less Taken
Ecclesiastes 7:5-12 uses the language of the fool and the wise person:
It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless. Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart. The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools. Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor. (NIV)
Wise / wisdom is repeated 7 times, fools 4 times, and heart 5 times. In Hebrew, the word heart (lev) has more to do with thinking and doing than feeling. The heart is the place where reflections and decisions are made. Here the thoughtful decision is between the walkway of wisdom and the footpath of folly.
Again, Solomon’s teaching is similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. Matthew 7:24-27
The 3 “better than” comparisons in v. 5-12 can be summarized under two exhortations:
- Listen to the wise – v. 5 says “It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.”
- Instead of listening to fools, then, and their trivial jokes and Top 40 songs, we are to listen to the wise and their unpopular, but constructive, criticism.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. Prov. 12:1
A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. Prov. 17:10
- Wait wisely – v. 8 – 9 says “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.”
- The phrase “patient in spirit” is the central concept around which everything in these verses orbits. We all face temptations toward impatience. It might be the “quick fix”, as addressed in Ecclesiastes 7:7:
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Even the wise man may be tempted to embrace something that he would otherwise think crazy or evil (“madness”), and take a bribe or extort someone in order to pay off his debts.Beyond the temptation of the quick fix is the temptation to lose our temper, as stated in verse 9:
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
Closely related to losing our temper is complaining about the present, as we idolize and airbrush the past:
Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl 7:10)
To paraphrase, “Ah, the good old days! When I was a boy, gas was a nickel a gallon and young men wore their trousers above their bottoms, not below.” Nostalgia of this sort nauseates Pastor Solomon, for he knows as we all should know, that each age has its own unique opportunities and challenges. For example, the Corinthian Christians lived in a city that was synonymous with illicit sex. The Greek word korinthiazesthai–to corinthianize–meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery. We cannot face the challenges of our age by pining after another. Such praise of the past proves our impatience with the present. We are to manage the hand that we have been dealt, rather than longing for some ideal era.
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor. Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 (NIV)
Money has its advantages. If you have money, when adversity strikes – the loss of a job, a sputtering economy, or a natural disaster – you have some shelter and security. But money is worthless when standing before a Holy God:
Riches won’t help on the day of judgment, but right living can save you from death. (Proverbs 11:4 NLT)
Wisdom, however, protects. The wise know how to navigate through life’s deep and difficult waters. The wise know the wisdom of tempering the tongue, listening, waiting, and attending funerals. Yet human wisdom, without a right relationship with God, doesn’t ultimately get us anywhere. Thus, there is another step, a final step forward, that we must take. The last step is the beginning of wisdom – to fear the Lord:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10 NIV)
Remember the 2 questions from 6:11-12. The first question (“Who knows what is good for us?”) is answered in Eccl. 7:1-12, the second question (“Who can tell what will happen to us?”) is answered in 7:13-14. The second question is rhetorical. The tone is negative, as in: “Who on earth can possibly predict what will become of us in the future? Will tomorrow bring feast of famine, work or unemployment, prosperity or adversity, happiness or sorrow?” What is the answer to these questions? Only God knows. It follows that to God we must go. We go to Him not for answers but for shelter under His sovereignty. Here is how Pastor Solomon phrases it:
Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Eccl. 7:13-14 (NIV)
These verses exhort us to see our situation – whether seemingly straight or certainly crooked – as ordered and smooth in the sovereign mind of God.
Q: When the world is in the hand of a good and sovereign God, why is it such a “crooked place”?
The author calls these last 2 verses Pastor Solomon’s “Job moment”, because they reflect both the beginning and the end of Job’s drama. At the end, in Job 37:14, Elihu exhorts Job to “stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” Then in chapters 38-41, God cross-examines His creature (Job) with His creation. God summons even the ostrich to testify against human arrogance, ignorance and ingratitude. Finally in chapter 42, the righteous man repents. “I have uttered,” Job admits, “what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me … I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (v. 3-5). What Job finally sees clearly is that he could not see clearly (as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians):
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12 – NIV)
He acknowledges that the Lord is lovingly involved in the operations of an exceedingly complex universe; that God’s mysterious providence is too wonderful to comprehend; that human perceptions of justice are not the scales on which the righteousness of God is weighed; and that God has an inescapable purpose in whatever He does, even if that purpose is never revealed to the creature it affects. Earlier in the beginning of Job’s story (Job 1-2), he experienced a very “crooked” world. Job lost his wealth. He lost his children. He lost his friends’ respect. He lost his wife’s love:
His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)
Yet Job acknowledged, as Solomon does here, that God has made the day of prosperity as well as the day of adversity (“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” Job 1:21). He came to understand that both light and darkness (Isaiah 45:7), good and bad (Job 2:10; Lam. 3:38), come from the Lord’s sovereign hand. Both are works of God. Both are to be “considered.” If we do not know what the future holds, we can only submit to and trust in the One who holds the future. Martin Luther said it well: “Let us, therefore, be content with the things that are present and commit ourselves into the hand of God, who alone knows and controls both past and the future.” God can twist the times so that a proud boy sold into slavery (a bad thing) is the very man God uses to save thousands of people from starvation (a good thing). Trust in the Lord’s sovereign purposes, knowing that He once used the worst day in human history – the day of Christ’s crucifixion – to bring hope and happiness to the world forever. The Man of Sorrows is the God of joy (Isaiah 53:3; John 15:11). Do you really believe that He works all things together for your good (Rom. 8:28)? Then live like it. Trust God and tremble before Him. Trembling trust is the wise way forward in a fallen world. Trembling trust in the risen Christ is the only way to overcome the grave.
Waiting for Superman
In a modern world, where the work of God is considered benign, other idols – even in the form of make-believe superheroes like superman – rise to the surface. However, people need to understand that there really is Someone strong enough to save:
Ah, Sovereign LORD, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for You. (Jeremiah 32:17 NIV)
He is Someone that we cannot and should not argue with, but Someone that we can and should rest in. Our greatest good is God! God knows what is good for us, and He holds our futures in His sovereign, loving hands. So stop pounding on the door of doubt. Stop trying to squeeze through the doggie flap of purposeless pleasures. Stop shaking the locked gate of grief. Pastor Solomon has shut every door but one: faith! Knock, Open. Walk through. Acknowledge God’s greatness. Take death seriously. And for God’s sake, enjoy life while you’re at it!
Q: How can we understand both the sovereignty of Almighty God and the free will He’s given to creatures created in His image and that we experience in our daily lives?