Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun 5.13.18
Ecclesiastes 3:16 – 4:16
This is a very difficult text if you don’t take it out of context (as many do). But we can’t do that – it’s not a stand alone passage, it is part of a larger argument.
We started the second section last week, which spans chapters 3-5. And we started this section by looking at the end of the section, so we could keep in mind the destination. Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
For the believer, it is good and fitting to find enjoyment in [all of life], because your life, every meaningful and mundane moment, is a gift from God. Your life is an utterly unique “lot” God has given you, that you must accept and rejoice in.
This morning, Soloon deals with the reality that sometimes God’s plan does not look beautiful.
Now, before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father in heaven, we come to you, by the Holy Spirit, and in the name of your Son Jesus, to ask for help. Help me to preach well. And help all of us to hear well; not just with our ears, but with our minds and hearts. And again, we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 3. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, (which you’re free to take with you if you don’t own a Bible), you will find today’s text on page 356.
Remember, the author of Ecclesiastes is the great King Solomon, (also called The Professor). He is writing about 3000 years ago, probably as an old man, and he writes about his journey from hating life to enjoying life. And as we’ve discovered, this is an honest book for honest people – His words take a very realistic look at life in this world, and for those interested and willing to face it, this book is for them.
Here are chapters 1 and 2 in a nutshell:
On the one hand, he has said “all of life is vanity and full of weariness.” He has said “all of life under the sun is vanity and so true joy cannot be found here.”
Temporal contentment, maybe. Superficial happiness, maybe. Detached or distracted peace of mind, maybe. But deep, lasting, honest joy cannot be found here. Which is why, for so many years, Solomon hated his life.
So on the one hand, he has said that, and will continue to say that.
But, on the other hand, he has said this: “God gives joy to his children. God gives joy to those who please him. God gives joy to his children as they remember his might and goodness.”
Is that a contradiction? It is not. All of what Solomon says, of course, is true. All of life is vanity and full of weariness; life is difficult, hard, full of sorrow and trial and tribulation and yet life can be enjoyed as a gift from God. Solomon himself went from hatred of life to enjoyment of life.
Here again is what Solomon says at the end of this section, in Ecclesiastes 5:20 – “..he [this is a believer at the end of his life] will not much remember the days of his life [that is, the hard days of his life] because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” That does not mean he’ll magically forget the hard days. But I think it means that he will look back and not be consumed with sorrow, but with joy. Sorrow will be swallowed up by joy. Joy will tip the scale.
Next, in chapter 3, the professor moved on to the ground beneath the enjoyment of life. If life is that vain, and it is, how do God’s children enjoy it as a gift. And here is not the Professor’s answer: When he reached the point when he was enjoying his life, it wasn’t because vanity, sorrow, and hardship had been removed. It’s not as if we find God and then all the hardship goes away, and is replaced with health, and wealth, and good fortune.
No, here was his answer, he began to give it in 3:1-15…
First, God is in control of this world. Everything is part of his plan. We saw this in 3:1-8, where Solomon declared there was a determined time and season for everything, and then he said this in 3:14-15a, ”I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been..”
And then second, not only is everything part of God’s plan – God’s plan is beautiful. Here is what Solomon said in 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
Now, here is the problem he addresses next, in our text today, starting in 3:16 and all the way through chapter 4 – The plan doesn’t look beautiful. The plan doesn’t seem beautiful.
We are under the loom. We can’t see the beautiful tapestry above, and how it all works together. We scan his works in vain. We sometimes just see all the snarls and knots below. From God’s perspective, and from our perspective eventually – beauty. But what about now?
“I don’t understand.” “How can this be for my good?” “How can this be for God’s glory?” “How can a good God be in control of this world?” “How can this possibly fit into a good plan?”
So Solomon is going to now bring up four observations. Four terrible realities he sees as he looks out into the world. And I think what the Professor is doing is anticipating our objections to God’s sovereignty and goodness.
He knows that what he has just said – everything is part of God’s beautiful plan -is seemingly contradicted by our observations. So what does he do? He brings them up, and not only does he bring them up, he gives some responses, but I appreciate this honesty, he doesn’t make up answers to questions he doesn’t have answers to (questions the wisest man who ever lived does not have answers to!)
Here they are, and then we’ll work through them. Injustice, oppression, envy and laziness, and aloneness. Those are significant obstacles to believing God’s plan is beautiful. And those are significant obstacles to the enjoyment of life.
So let’s begin reading in 3v16 and look at the first one, injustice.
In these seven verses (3:16-22), he’s going to make the observation (v16), then give two comments (v17 and vv18-21) and then offer a little conclusion in v22.
Verse 16: Moreover, I saw [so this is his first observation] I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.
There’s the observation – Where there should be justice, there is wickedness. Where there should be righteousness, there is wickedness.
It’s what the Psalmist is talking about in Psalm 58:1-2,
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge the children of man uprightly?
2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.
Injustice. So much injustice. Lack of fairness. People not getting what they deserve. People getting what they don’t deserve. You experience this at work when you’re overlooked for the promotion that you’re clearly more qualified for. You experience this in your family through favoritism. You read about this in the news. Injustice is rampant, and we hate it.
Abraham said in Genesis 18:25, Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Now here is his first comment on that reality, verse 17: 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.
Injustice is not an argument against the sovereignty of God or his good plan, because injustice will be dealt with by God. Nothing will go ultimately unpunished. Justice is delayed in some cases, but never forgotten. Nothing will be swept under the carpet. That also is very good news.
In Psalm 73, the psalmist is wrestling with injustice – namely the wicked prospering while the righteous suffer. But then he remembers something…
Psalm 73:16-19; 27
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
So that’s his first comment on injustice in the world. And in vv18-21 he makes a second comment. It’s interesting – God will judge in the end, but still we ask, why the delay? Why not prevent it? Why allow the injustice? There’s an argument to follow. God is not indifferent, that is what 3:17 is telling us, but now we see the delay in justice reveals the character of fallen man.
Verses 18-21: 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves [apart from God’s grace] are but beasts [animals]. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?
Here is what Michael Eaton says about these verses in his commentary: Equally he maintains that the injustice of men fulfils at least one aspect of the purpose of God: it provides a massive demonstration on the stage of history of our ignorance regarding our own nature and destiny. God is not indifferent to injustice (v. 17); for the present it is an ‘under the sun’ monstrosity which reveals the essential character of fallen man (7:29)…[i]
See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
And David said this, about himself, looking back, in Psalms 73:22
Psalm 73:22 (Psalm 49:1-12, 13-20)
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
And now here is his conclusion in verse 22: 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
One author says: If God is sovereign in his disposal of earthly events (3:1–15), has a purpose even in allowing human injustices (3:16–20), and holds our ultimate destiny in his hands (21), then the attitude of the wise should be joyful confidence in the pursuit of earthly responsibilities and the pleasures they bring. [ii]
That’s injustice. Now Solomon moves on to another obstacle – the problem of oppression, look at 4v1-3…
4:1-3 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them [that is, the oppressed].
Oppression. Cruelty. I have two apps on my phone that keep me in touch with this – Voice of the Martyrs and Operation World. I can easily forget the oppressed, and so I need reminders, so that I can be thankful, so that I can pray, so that I can help.
How bad is this oppression? Listen to Solomon in 4:2-3,
2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been [why?] and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Better off is the one who has never seen these evil deeds. Now, Solomon gives no response to this. I don’t think he has one. These oppressions are inexplicable, and it would be silly for him to make up some sort of answer. We mourn, we pray, we help, we trust God.
I used to feel the pressure to answer the difficult questions, but in my, (I hope) wisdom, I’ve learned to just be quiet and say “I don’t know.”
There are a couple more problems…
ENVY and LAZINESS (4:4-6)
4:4-6 4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work [that’s a good thing] come from a man’s envy of his neighbor [that’s a bad thing]. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Here’s a good thing – hard work – but it’s being motivated by a wicked motive – envy. I want what you have.
For jealousy makes a man furious,
and he will not spare when he takes revenge.
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
but envy makes the bones rot.
But there is another side to this coin. There are those who work hard because they envy, and then there are those who don’t work because they are lazy. They don’t do anything. Verse 5:
5 The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
That’s a gruesome picture. He’s so lazy he doesn’t work and so he doesn’t feed himself. Others will feed him, but eventually they’ll get tired of feeding him and they’ll just eat themselves rather than work.
Laziness is ugly. Laziness is not laughed at in the Bible. It’s seen as really wicked.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-8
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.
Both envy and laziness are bad, so Solomon offers an alternative in verse 6:
6 Better is a handful [one hand] of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
One hand of quietness is between envy – both hands grasping for more – and laziness – no hands working for anything.
Now, finally, and I think this is where the first three are heading. Aloneness, or loneliness. This is a problem.
He mentioned aloneness in 4v1 – Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! This is where injustice and oppression and envy and laziness end up – peole suffering alone.
LONELINESS / ALONENESS (4:7-8)
4:7-8 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
And here’s why aloneness is so sad…
THE BLESSING OF COMPANIONSHIP…
4:9-12 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Companionship is one of the ways we cope in this hard life. It’s a blessing from God. Now, he ends with an illustration.
A difficult text:
4:13-16 13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he [the poor, wise youth] went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
In conclusion, there we have it; his four observations; four objections sommonly raised against God’s sovereignty and goodness.
He has offered some help, but no solutions. These problems aren’t solved.
God will be the judge in the end. (3v17)
Focus on enjoying your work (3v22)
One hand of quietness better than two hands grasping (4v6)
Two are better than one (4v9)
Everything is part of God’s plan. And God’s plan is good, it’s beautiful, it’s perfect. But it doesn’t seem beautiful. Here’s what Solomon says – “I know.”
How do you answer when someone asks the “why” questions. You should say “I don’t know.” And then you should say, “What I do know is that God is good, and does all things well.”
Consider Joseph and what he said in Genesis 50:20.