Ecclesiastes: Reality and Wisdom in the Midst of the Unrealistic and Foolish
Introduction: As we conclude our series of diving into the book of Ecclesiastes I would like to remind us of Pastor Steve’s introduction to our study. By doing this it helps us to set our minds (as well as our hearts) to be in a better position to receive the Wisdom of Solomon and glean insight into how God’s Truth can help us navigate some of the deeper questions we face in this life. So here it is: ‘The mysteries of fallen human existence are self-admitted and well documented, and because of our appetite for social media, who we are and what we are capable of (both good and bad) is just simply, as they say "out there." For most Americans we are living life pretty close to how we want to live it. And for most of us, we are asking just about every question under the sun, while pretty much having access to everything under it as well. But once we have exhausted our vain dabbling into secular existence, when we have finished filtering all of life and people through our lens of negativity and pessimism, and when we are finally worn out and sick to death of wallowing in our self-loathing and self-pitied pride the ancient truths of Ecclesiastes will tell us there is something different and there is something more! We ask, "What is it?" Ecclesiastes will tell us - there is God. Because there is God there will be justice and peace one day. Whether we admit it or not we humans do not know or have all the answers (nor do we even ask all the right questions). But please hear me, it does not mean there are no answers - even to the wrong questions. That is why Ecclesiastes calls us to look for reality and wisdom in the midst of the unrealistic and foolish - because God is the answer.’ So with this premise in mind we can be assured that a study in the book of Ecclesiastes is not in vain, but rather a valuable endeavor that should lead us to a renewed commitment to live our life being mindful that there is a God and an Eternity beyond what goes on down here, ‘Under the Sun.’
Ecclesiastes 9:7-10: (NET)
“Go, eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, because God has already approved your works. Let your clothes always be white, and do not spare precious ointment on your head. Enjoy life with your beloved wife during all the days of your fleeting life that God has given you on earth during all your fleeting days; for that is your reward in life and in your burdensome work on earth. Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might, because there is neither work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, the place where you will eventually go.”
So, what is one to do ‘under the sun?’ Solomon's wisdom... “Eat, drink,” and be “merry!” Not an endless party - but rather doing these every day, monotonous and repetitive activities differently from the way that someone with no hope does them. Eating should be accompanied by joy - not miserable gluttony. Drinking should be accompanied by a merry heart - not a drunken hangover. The point is this - joy and happiness do not originate with food or drink, but rather with the understanding that God has already approved of you through Christ. Since we do live under the sun, we can enjoy the things of this life because of the Son. But we enjoy the things of this life with an understanding of and with obedience to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:19-20 (NKJ),
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
It is fine to enjoy the things of this world as long as that does not become your focus and goal. To do this is to be foolish and unwise as Solomon has pointed out before. If we understand, as Solomon has taught, that this life is fleeting, then our hearts should rightly be concerned with the things that will make a difference for all of eternity. This idea of eating and drinking and being merry was actually a practice of the early church, in Acts 2:46-47 (NLT) we read,
“They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”
This joyous practice of the simple things of life became a witness for the love of God and it helped draw people to Him. The key here is the balance of enjoying the blessings of God here in this world with our hearts and minds fixated on the things of the next. Paul’s instruction on dealing with this balance is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23,(ERV)
“All things are allowed,” you say. But not all things are good. “All things are allowed.” But some things don’t help anyone. Try to do what is good for others, not just what is good for yourselves.”
In this we have the balance between enjoying the good pleasures of this life and having our lives also glorify God as well, thus fulfilling the ‘laying up treasures in heaven.’
In contrast to living our lives in this manner we have the example of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Writer Calvin Miller speaks about the Pharisees during the time of Jesus and their lack of genuine joy for life. The Pharisees were not only pious but were especially legalistic and rigid with their faith and religion. Their laughter was so rare that if you saw a Pharisee smiling or laughing, you would take a video of it and post it everywhere and it would soon be viral because of its rarity. The Pharisees projected and taught a stern and angry God. From time to time their God would even have to shout down from the balcony of heaven, ‘Are you having a good time?’ If ever a Pharisee felt bold enough to answer, ‘Yes, God, we are!’ then their God would shout back, ‘Well, stop! Are you religious leaders or not?’ This is one of the reasons that Jesus had such a problem with these religious leaders, they grossly misrepresented God’s attitude towards His people and if we go around all the time taking ourselves too seriously and never enjoy life, then we are not representing Him well either.
An interesting bit of history here is in Solomon’s phrase in verse 8,
“Let your clothes always be white, and do not spare precious ointment on your head.”
Cultural historians teach us that the expressed enjoyment of life in ancient Israel could have included wearing white clothes and anointing oneself with oils. White could symbolize “purity, festivity, or elevated social status,” while anointing oneself with oils goes back to ancient Egypt. Hebrew tradition says that some Rabbis “taught that the clean clothes and oil represent good deeds and Torah, so that one could themselves be morally ready for God’s ‘banquet’ on their day of death.”
In verse 9 Solomon gives instruction concerning a man and his wife. This no doubt in Solomon’s old age was a painful reminder of his failures in this area. In verse 9 he says,
“Enjoy life with your beloved wife during all the days of your fleeting life that God has given you on earth during all your fleeting days; for that is your reward in life and in your burdensome work on earth.”
Previously in Ecclesiastes Solomon laments that a good wife has eluded him, in Ecclesiastes 7:26-28 (NLT) he writes
“I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. “This is my conclusion,” says the Teacher. “I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman!”
Umm, yeah, I guess after having 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) you could say that Solomon had looked at this issue from every angle! But, like Bono, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for! And for all of the single ladies and gentlemen out there, this brings us to the important issue of making sure that you are including God into the equation of when you are seriously looking into getting married. God can and will direct you in this matter. The point that Solomon is making here is that your wife, or your husband and your family is a gift from God. It is your reward in this life here on earth. They are precious. We should value them, honor them and spend our time with them. Their place must be one of priority in our lives. In his teaching on the Keys to Loving Relationships, Gary Smalley instructs husbands and wives to care for and cherish each other as a violinist might care for an original Stradivarius. He says that when you look at them imagine the label, “Stradivarius” is stamped on their forehead and then love and take care of them accordingly. Solomon writes in Proverbs 18:22 (NKJ),
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing. And obtains favor from the Lord.”
Also in Proverbs 12:4 (NKJ) we have,
“An excellent wife is the crown of her husband,”
And finally in Proverbs 31:10 (NKJ) we read,
“Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies.”
We live in a world today that pushes against and devalues the family; we must fight against this trend. The world fights against the family because it is the first institution that God created. A faithful husband that loves and honors his wife is an example of God’s love to the world. A faithful wife that cares for her husband and children is an example of God’s care and grace to the world. Faithful and obedient children are examples to the world on how we ought to come to God and how we ought to be obedient to His instruction. This is why the world fights against the Godly family, because they are fighting against God Himself.
Before we leave this section and go onto the next I want to spend a few minutes on what Solomon says in verse 10,
“Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might.”
I am sure that many of you are instantly reminded of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 9:62 (NLT),
“But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”
To me it is interesting with all of Solomon’s talk about how this life is fleeting that he places a value on manual worldly labor. But it reminds us of the point that Solomon is making here in Ecclesiastes as a whole, that this life is fleeting but what we do in this life can and should have eternal consequence. If we are all just about the party without a thought of eternity then we are of no heavenly consequence. If we are all about earthly labor without making a contribution towards heaven, then our lives really are meaningless.
Ok, let’s move along to our next section in Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 (NKJ)
“Truly the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun; but if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that is coming is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart,
And put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity.”
Solomon now revisits the idea of joy. Frankly, for a grateful person just seeing the light of the sun should cause one to rejoice. Yet, this grateful joy needs to be tempered with the knowledge that in life there will also be dark and difficult days. Here, Solomon illustrates the contrast of life by using light and darkness imagery. Sometimes, those dark days seem far too many. This does not mean that Solomon is a skeptic or pessimist. But he is a realist. Life is made up of good and bad days - that is a fact. The conclusion, “all that comes is transitory,” seems pessimistic, but it is not; it is realistic.
The next word of wisdom from Solomon - Rejoice! In this context it is the imperative for the young, but could also include the old. This is not a signal or call to sin. Rather, this type of rejoicing is to be done purposefully and responsibly. This is big picture thinking - keeping in mind both God and the judgment day - not just the beginning but also the end. This true joy will be made up of the good things that one feels in the heart and the beautiful things that one sees with the eyes. There must be a belief that “perfect freedom – must have a goal worth reaching, a righteous reward to strive for, and there, in that, we find fulfillment.” When we have a Godly big picture in mind we can endure a lot and still come out on top. Listen to the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 11: 23-27 (NLT),
“I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.”
Does this sound like any kind of life that you would want to live? But listen to what Paul says in the next chapter, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NLT),
“Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
If you want to have fulfillment, contentment and even joy during the hard times in life, then have a righteous goal. Live a life that has an eternal destiny in mind. Get busy with the plans that God has for your life.
But what should you do when your life has been marred by hard and painful times and those difficult times keep coming at you? You should do these two things; first you Forget What Is Behind You. Paul teaches this in Philippians 3:13-14 (NKJ),
“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
And the second thing you have to do is Turn It Over To God. Also in Philippians (4: 6-7 NKJ) Paul teaches,
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
These two things are not easy; they take a great faith in God; faith in His love for us and faith in His plans for us.
Now let’s move on to our final portion of Ecclesiastes and to the close of our series.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (NLT)
“That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”
I like how Solomon presents the closing of his book. It wasn’t enough for him just to conclude, he wanted to be sure that you paid attention to his closing. He even says it, “That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion.” My translation of his closing sounds like this, “In my last days, I Solomon have written to you my final thoughts about life the universe and everything. These are my final ponderings of great wisdom and they are here now for your contemplation. And now here at the end, after I have written everything that I wanted to say. And all that I have said now leads me to finally say this, so pay attention! ‘Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.’” Can’t you just hear how he stresses this final point? He is saying that all of his learning and all of his wisdom has led him to this final conclusion about how mankind ought to live: Fear God and obey his commands. If you do this then your life has value purpose and meaning. If you don’t, all is vanity.
My Closing Thoughts on Ecclesiastes:
For me Ecclesiastes presents to us a Great Contradiction and a Great Choice.
The Great Contradiction is this:
Life Is Meaningless - Life Has Great Value
The Great Choice is this:
We Can Live For Ourselves - We Can Live For God
It is our choice to which side of the Contradiction our life will land. But make no mistake about it, God does have a plan for our lives that will make them more meaningful than we can possibly imagine. The choice is ours. Let us Choose Wisely.