Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun (Part 9) 6.24.18
Ecclesiastes 7:16 – 8:15
The book of Ecclesiastes can be divided, I think rightly, into four sections. Last time we were together we listened to King Solomon start the third section, which spans from 6:1–8:15.
In sections 1 and 2 here is what we learned from Quohelet, as Solomon calls himself, or The Professor – God is sovereign over all things, and he alone gives his people enjoyment in the vanity of life.
Here’s how that works – God is sovereign, which means that nothing happens apart from his will. Life is vanity, which means, literally, life is a mist; its short, monotonous, and inscrutable. But God gives the one who loves and fears him the power to enjoy it. So God is sovereign over all things, and he alone gives his people enjoyment in the vanity of life.
Then, in Section 3, which is the central section of Solomon’s book, he takes that truth for a test drive. He picks that proposition up and looks through it, like a pair of glasses, at the world around him, and begins to assume and apply it to all of life. And as he does that, (here’s where he’s going in this section), some problems come up, and he deals with them.
For example, and you’ll remember this from last time, if God is sovereign then why does the world seem unfair and unjust? More specifically, why so the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? That was 6:1–7:17, and Solomon’s basic response was this – don’t judge a book by its cover – prosperity is not always a good thing, and adversity is not always a bad thing.
Now today, the Professor moves from perspective to practice. In the last half of this third section, Solomon gives an observation, and an instruction on how to live in an unfair world. The observation is Gods ways are beyond our ways, and the instruction will simply boil down to this – Fear God and enjoy your life.
Before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me.
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 7. 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 358.
Before we get started in with our text today, let me read the preceding verse, verse 15, which is transitional, looking back at the text we read last week, and looking forward to the text we’re reading today. Here’s what it says:
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.
That’s the author’s two-fold observation, and you’ve seen the same thing. He sees wicked people living a long life, and he sees righteous people living a short life, and it seems unfair. He felt like his dad, King David, felt in Psalm 73:
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
Most Christians, at some point, struggle with that anomaly. They either see it or experience it. And when we do, we’re tempted to doubt Solomon’s proposition – we’re tempted to doubt the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God.
That struggle takes Solomon into our verses today, where he stands on his observations and now gives instruction. “Okay Solomon, that’s the perspective I should have… Now how should I live?” Let’s begin with vv16-18 of chapter 7, and listen for the instruction:
16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? [and now here’s the positive instruction]18 It is good that you should take hold of this [that is, v16] and from that [that is, v17] withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
So the instruction is to fear God. And if you do that, you will avoid v16 and v17, you will “come out from both of them.” So here is what the King says – “Avoid being overly righteous or overly wicked by fearing God.”
Does that sound strange to you? You’ve probably heard a Christian say “Don’t be overly wicked,” although that makes it sound like its okay to be a little wicked. But you probably have never heard a Christian say “Don’t be overly righteous.” How is that even possible? Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:48:
Matthew 5:6, 48
48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Here’s what Solomon is talking about – When Christians see the righteous prospering and the wicked suffering they are tempted to do one of two things – one is to become very righteous, and the other is to become very wicked, and both are traps.
Let me explain – If I think I am righteous and yet I am suffering, I may be tempted to think that I’m suffering because I’m not righteous enough. So what do I do? I focus on righteousness so that I’ll avoid adversity. I become overly righteous. Don’t do that.
Here’s the other temptation – If I think I am righteous and yet I am suffering, I may be tempted to think that I’m suffering because God isn’t really good or doesn’t really care. So what do I do? I throw my hands up and give up. I become overly wicked. Don’t do that.
What should you do? How do you avoid both those traps? Fear God.
When life is difficult and unfair, (and it usually is), do not focus on being better or being worse; on trying to earn favor by doing more good or giving up and doing more evil. Rather, fear God. Consider who God is, your heavenly Father, and look to please him in all you do. That is wisdom. And, Solomon goes on, vv19-20:
19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
Here’s the thing – you are not a good person. You may do some good things, and you may be better than someone else, but you are not the kind of good that deserves good things from God. So don’t be overly righteous, it will get you absolutely nowhere, about as far as a Pharisee.
The key to living in this paradoxical world is to fear God. People who fear God will not pursue wickedness, but they also will not pursue what Sidney Greiunus calls “super-righteousness.” They will fear God.
And here’s something else a God-fearer will not do, verse 21:
21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, [and if you fear God they will say a lot. And here are two reasons not to listen to what people say or think] lest you hear your servant cursing you. [and then second] 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Fear God. That’s the practical instruction for living in this unfair world. Don’t try and earn God’s favor or a prolonged life. Don’t give up and pursue folly. And don’t worry about what other people think or say.
Okay, one last paragraph in this chapter, seven more verses. I’m going to move through them quickly, and through the first 14 verses of chapter 8. And I’m doing that because he breaks here from instruction, and then returns with a final instruction to close out the section in 8:15.
So in 7:23 – 8:14 he’s going to make the following observation, and we’ve heard it before: God’s ways are beyond our ways.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me.24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
Solomon has thought about this. (And remember, he is the wisest man to ever live). He has thought about life and its unfairness. He has tested, evaluated, experimented, investigated, inspected, tried to figure it out. But it’s too deep and too far. God’s ways are beyond our ways. He goes on, verse 25:
25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. He can’t figure it out, but he discovers a few things, v26:
26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. “The woman” here is folly. He is personifying folly, which is what Solomon does throughout Proverbs, (especially in chapter 7. Proverbs 7:22-27)
Here’s what he’s saying – he’s discovered how tempting it is to give up. The lure of wickedness is great. “I’ll just abandon my husband, abandon my wife, abandon my kids, abandon my church, abandon God.” What else did he find out? Verse 27-28a:
27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things—28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found.
He says it again – life doesn’t add up. He has tried “adding one thing to another,” but to no avail. God’s ways are beyond our ways. Verse 28b:
One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. His point is – not a lot of godly men and women. And then finally, verse 29:
29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
God’s ways are beyond our ways.
I lied a little bit. These five verses offer more instruction, but we’re not going to focus on it. Given the context of these chapters, I think these are instructions for citizens under a powerful and wicked king. And the instruction is, “be wise.”
8 Who is like the wise?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
and the hardness of his face is changed. [Wisdom is good]
2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.
Okay, now back to his final two observations before his closing exhortation:
6 For there is a time and a way for everything (3:1,17), although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. 7 For he does not know what is to be (3:22; 6:12), for who can tell him how it will be? [We don’t know the future. But also – we can’t control the present, v8]
8 No man has power to retain the spirit [literally, the wind, we can’t control the wind], or power over the day of death. [we can’t control the day of our death] There is no discharge from war [Once a battle starts, you’re in it], nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. [wickedness does not save the wicked] 9 All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.
What’s he saying? People do not know the future and cannot control the present. One more observation:
10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. [Why do the wicked prosper!? How can God allow this? It doesn’t make sense!] 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him.
13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.
14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. That’s a final restatement of the anomaly.
And now, in conclusion of this third section, we come to verse 15, Solomon’s closing and (again, unexpected) exhortation. And he ends the same way he ended the previous two sections.
15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Okay, what has Solomon said?
An observation and an instruction:
The observation: God is sovereign and his ways are beyond our ways.
The world is filled with injustice. Life is vanity. But God’s ways are higher than our ways. We do not know the future, and we cannot control the present.
“Can you find out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
8 It is higher than heaven—what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
And so what is the instruction? Fear God (vertical) and enjoy your life (horizontal). We cannot make sense of this paradoxical world. We must entrust ourselves to God. We must fear God. We must seek to please him. We should not try to control God or our life by being super righteous, and we should not give up and pursue wickedness. Fear God, and enjoy the life he has given you.
Of course, enjoyment in life does not answer all the questions we have. But “the commendation of enjoyment cautions against too much puzzling over the incomprehensible and morally offensive facts of life… Embracing joy frees him to let God be God, whose trademark is work that exceeds our comprehension.” [i]
Life is vanity. The righteous often suffer, and the wicked often prosper. What should I do? Fear God and enjoy your life.
Remember the message of this great book: All of life is vanity, and yet, those who fear God are able to enjoy it, as they know and trust in the greatness and goodness of God, receiving this life and all that is in it as a gift.
[i] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 216.