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"MESSAGE FOR MARCH 17, 2013"

FROM ECCLESIASTES 7:1-14

As we continue in our study of the book of Ecclesiastes, our text for this morning takes us away from the author’s repeated claim that nothing in this life will bring ultimate joy or happiness.  He’ll return to that theme, but in chapter seven he brings us back to the topic of wisdom.  As he begins in verse one, he gives us the impression that his treatment will be very much like other Biblical proverbs that often communicate what used to be called “common sense.”  He says, “A good name is better than precious ointment…”  This sounds very much like Proverbs 22:1.  1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”  The two statements teach that a good name is worth more than any material blessing.  A good name—or being well thought of by others is critically important for any believer.   A good name is the product of many years of living with integrity—living out the same values when you’re alone that you do in public.

 

Most of the focus of this passage lies elsewhere—this is not the main thrust of the text but while we’re here it’s worth asking—“Do I have a good name?”   What answer could you give to questions like these?   Do people who know me well consider me generous—holding my resources loosely so I can share them with others?  Do they know me to be patient—having a long fuse—or do they see me as easily frustrated and maybe even prone to explosive outbursts?  Would they tell others that I am humble—not overly obsessed or impressed with myself, or is my favorite subject—the person I most admire--ME?  Is the word on me that I’m honest—or will I lie to you if it will serve my purposes? Am I known as good-natured, or do I have a critical spirit?  Am I a person known for keeping confidences, or do people only share information with me when they want it well-circulated?  Part of the reason a good name is so precious is because it takes years to get and moments to lose.  It takes a life, not of perfection, but of consistency.  The most important reason for having a good name is because it exalts God’s name.  If every believer in America had a good reputation with others, God’s character would be much more reflected in his people and more unbelievers would know of his mercy, his love and his holiness.

 

After beginning with this very conventional proverb, the author launches into several verses that would perhaps not initially strike us as expressions of common sense.  The rest of the first section says, “1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 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. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”   At first blush, these proverbs seem to fly in the face of common sense, but much Biblical wisdom lies much deeper than clearly self-evident axioms.  That’s the case here.  There is much wisdom here, but we must think more a bit more deeply to see it.  We could summarize what these proverbs are saying as:  Experiencing a death and feelings of sorrow can be profitable to us and we should therefore embrace them, not push them away.  We must clarify something here.  This truth does not minimize the fact that death is a curse and is intensely painful to surviving loved ones and nowhere in the Bible is it taught that pain itself is good in and of itself.  We are not called to be masochists who pursue pain.  That’s perverse.  However, I find three reasons in the text why death and sorrow are good for us in that God uses the pain of them redemptively in our lives.  First, one reason it’s better to go to the house of mourning—where someone has died—than the house of feasting is because—“this is the end of all mankind.” 

 

Death touches everyone and eventually claims everyone.  That would indicate that developing a healthy, truth-driven attitude toward it by regular exposure to it would be a very good thing. This truth was even more crucial in ancient times and in third world countries today where death is common place.  In those cultures, you cannot keep death at arms-length.  People get sick, often receive no effective treatment and they die in or near their home—not in a hospital or institution.  Their bodies are often prepared for burial in their homes and there are no cosmetics to make corpses look like someone who has fallen asleep.  The reality of death in the sights and smells surrounding it are very real and regular occurrences in those contexts and it’s best to get accustomed to that by exposing yourself to it.  The proverb says that has far more redemptive value than going to a dinner party-which is by nature light and shallow. 

 

A second reason why a house of mourning is to be preferred to a house of feasting is because a house where someone has died will cause “the living to lay it to heart.”  The reality of our own death should powerfully inform the way we live.  His point is—the more we’re exposed to death and the pain surrounding it, the more frequently it’s laid on our hearts that our time here on earth is very short.  Psalm 90:12 says, “12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  A heart of wisdom is the product of a person who isn’t living in denial about their death—keeping it at arms-length until they are absolutely forced to deal with it.  People who refuse to think about their death often waste their lives because-in not living in the light of life’s brevity; they don’t work to invest their limited time on earth wisely. If a truly wise person were told she had a year to live, she would not much change the way she lived.  She was already living wisely--as if each day could be her last.  It’s the person wasting his life who will try to radically change it in the light of a terminal illness.  Being in the presence of death and those who are touched by it is a healthy reminder that someday, the people will be coming to YOUR funeral and the days when you can love God and love others in this life are numbered.  That immensely profitable lesson—learned “in the house of mourning” is far more profitable than anything you’re going to learn at a dinner party.  Though we may prefer a good party to a funeral, the pleasures associated with feasting are comparatively shallow and ephemeral.

 

A third reason why sorrow is preferable to laugher is in verse three.  3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”  That’s curious.  It’s much easier understood if we take that word translated glad as “better” which is a more literal rendering.  Sadness can make us better people in a way laughter cannot.  Sadness can make us better in a few ways.  First, Jesus says that when we’re sad there is the promise of comfort. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”  To know the comfort of God is a very sweet thing and far more profound an experience than sharing a good belly laugh.  Second, and related to this is what Paul tells us in Second Corinthians chapter one. “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”   It’s in our grief that we learn to comfort others.  Grief teaches us how to empathize with others because our sufferings enable us to enter into their sufferings, having experienced them ourselves.  Grief should be an education—laughter is certainly not a bad thing, but we can wrongly use it to escape from the sadness that has much to teach us.

 

This sounds strange to us who live in a culture that teaches that pain is something that should be almost universally avoided—whether it be physical, emotional, mental or otherwise.  Pain is bad—if an endeavor will bring pain, avoid it—UNLESS you’re “working out” —then it’s, “no pain, no gain.”  It’s probably noteworthy that it’s in the area of physical sculpting and doing things that will cause us to feel better and live longer—often self-oriented goals—that our culture encourages us to embrace pain.  I don’t know any popular cultural axiom or trend that reflects the truth that pain is to be embraced because it makes us better people.  When pain makes us more patient or empathetic or more godly—we seldom in those contexts hear, “no pain, no gain.”  Unless the theme from “Rocky” is playing in the background, pain is too often seen as our enemy.  The Teacher speaks Biblical wisdom when he says “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.  In a country where recreation and diversion have become major drivers of our economy, we can forget that fun and having fun is just not high on God’s list.  All we have to do to verify that is look at those in Scripture we are called to emulate.  Try to find one who is known for being playful or fun-loving.  Samson was a party animal, but do you want your kids to grow up and be like Samson?  Jesus was condemned by the Pharisees as a “drunkard and a winebibber,” not because he was such a jovial fellow but because he wouldn’t live in bondage to their unbiblical rules.  For many in our culture and even in the church, the way we spend our time and money indicates that having fun is very high on their list and we can easily become infected with that warped value system.  Fun is at best marginal on God’s list.  Joy—which isn’t dependent on our circumstances is highly valued—it points to Christ, but not fun—which is totally rooted in what we are doing or who we’re with.  We see another example of God’s priority for us in verses five and six.

 

5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity
.”  The basic message is” A wise rebuke is preferable to shallow laughter.  This is also very counter-cultural especially where we live.  A rebuke is a correction and it is generally very direct and often, it stings our pride.  We are not very good at rebukes in Northern Minnesota.  You don’t often here one adult saying to another, “No, what you said is sinful and hurtful—stop it.”  That tends to come out, “Ya’ might want to reconsider saying that.’  The statement, “You sinned against me and it was wrong of you” tends to sound more like, “You could go a year without doin’ that again and I wouldn’t complain.”  We don’t rebuke, we suggest.  We don’t correct—we hint—we beat around the bush and hope the other person will somehow, someway be able to intuit what we are really wanting to say to them, but won’t.

 

The Bible by contrast places rebuke in a consistently positive light—rebuke absolutely essential for spiritual growth.  David says in Psalm 141, “5 Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it…”  Proverbs 27:5 says, “5 Better is open rebuke than hidden love.”  Jesus says in Luke 17:3, “3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” Paul says to Titus about the Cretan believers he is ministering to and who have a bad reputation, “13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, Sharp rebuke is sometimes necessary for a person to be sound in faith.  Paul speaks of the inspiration of Scripture and says, “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” The word “reproof” is also translated “rebuke.”  Part of the reason for the Bible is so that God can rebuke us through it.  In Revelation 3:19 Jesus says to the church at Sardis, “19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.  The NIV translates “reprove” as “rebuke.”  Jesus strongly rebukes this church in Sardis out of his love for them.  To rebuke someone Biblically is to express love, not exasperation or disgust for them.

 

The author of Ecclesiastes says, “5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.”  The author says rebuke is better than the mirth and merriment he calls the “song of fools.”  Again, he’s pointing to the superiority of living life soberly with a purpose as opposed to living for the good times.  For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity.”  The laughter of fools is without any connection to reality—its irritating silliness and sometimes it’s crude.  One scholar says that thorns produce, “quick flames, little heat and lots of unpleasant noise.[1]  Like thorns under a pot that are basically useless in heating anything, so is laughter that is shallow and annoying.  We might call it frivolity—shallowness, being superficial.  This is probably what Jesus has in mind in Luke 6:25, “25 …Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.  Laughter is not evil, but this kind of annoying cackle without substance is not nearly as precious as the rebuke of a wise man. We don’t like rebuke, but if you have any spiritual maturity or even personal maturity, you have as an adult been rebuked for your attitudes and behaviors and probably several times.

 

Verses 7-10 says, “7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”  These verses together teach a very wise and much needed truth.  That is:  Taking the long view of life will ward off trouble and discouragement.  The verse that brings this section to a sharp point is “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.”  He is speaking of things that begin with great modestly and perhaps much difficulty—planting a new church, starting a small business, writing a book.  Overcoming the initial inertia of any project is hard.  It can take a very long time to clear away the obstacles, but when you’ve been at it a long time—many years in some cases, it can be glorious. 

 

Churches that begin in store fronts with 35 people can over the years by God’s grace grow into powerful disciple-making, church-planting, missionary-sending, God-loving, people-serving ministries.  When the Jews returning from exile began to build a temple much more modest than Solomon’s temple the Babylonians destroyed, they were discouraged.  The prophet Zechariah promises “10 For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice…”  It may seem small and insignificant now, but one day, you will rejoice over it.  The best example of this is God’s plan of redemption.  At the fall, things look bleak and God’s promise to defeat Satan appeared unlikely.  The process of redemption was long and marked by God’s people failing countless times.  But in the fullness of time, Jesus was born--lived a perfect life, died a redeeming death and fulfilled God’s promise of redemption.  After 4000 years of waiting, in the span of the life of one man—the Lord Jesus, God fulfilled his promise by dying on the cross for Adam’s race and that promise continues to be fulfilled as more people trust in him and are saved and sanctified in Christ.

 

What is essential for this to happen is to be “patient in spirit.”  It takes patience to wait and anguish over and run into brick walls and experience failure and discouragement in parenting or ministry or business or any worthwhile endeavor.  The oppression or corruption and bribes mentioned in verse seven are shortcuts—ways to get something done quickly. No patience is required but they are sinful and hurt people.  The author says even the wise are defiled by corruption.  To be patient is better than to be “proud in spirit.”  The proud in spirit expect quick results because they deserve them—they consider themselves very capable so a long process shouldn’t be necessary for them.  When the results don’t come quickly, they become angry.  Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.”  This is deep-seated, long-lasting, brooding anger.  This isn’t the anger that comes from a poor night’s sleep.  This anger is chilling and intentional and remains a long time.  A man I knew in college was angry for years over a business deal that went bad.  For years, every time someone mentioned the name of a certain corporation, he went into a rant. The anger had lodged in his bosom—it had become part of him, not just an emotion he displayed.

 

Taking the long view—patiently looking long into the future, waiting patiently to achieve what you desire is wisdom lived out.  Some people, rather than patiently looking to the future, spend much of their lives looking back at the past.  The author addresses that in verse 10, 10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”  People who talk about “the good ole days” are not wise.  There are several reasons why this backward looking attitude is not wise.  First, it denies God’s goodness.  If what you are living for happened 20 years ago, you are denying that God is actively working in you and for you now.  The implied message of your life is—God has given me nothing worth living for now so I’ll just look back.  Your life is a monument pointing to the past instead of an arrow pointing to Jesus.  For the believer, the best days are always in the future.  We’ll be with Jesus, worshipping and serving him around the throne.  That’s where we should be focused!  What in our past can compare with that?  People who pine for the good ole days are spiritually shallow at best.  Second, most people who do this idealize the past.  Often, we look back with great happiness and nostalgia on times in our lives that, at the time were very difficult, but those difficulties tend to get ironed out with the passage of time.  Taking a forward-looking, long view of life will ward off trouble and discouragement.

 

A fourth truth is in verses 11-12.  11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 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.” These are difficult verses to interpret but the preacher seems to be balancing the warnings he’s given about money in previous verses.  Here he says that wisdom is good—especially when it’s wed to an inheritance.  Money that is spent or invested wisely can be a powerful tool for good.  Wisdom protects us from making bad decisions, but on a purely human level money can protect us from going under during lean times. The message seems to be that Wisdom and wealth when paired together can be a humanly powerful pair. 

 

Fifth and finally, verses 13-14 tell us, “13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 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.”  The take-home truth here is—Living in the light of God’s sovereign rule encourages us in troubled times.  This truth is seen repeatedly in Scripture.  He wants us to consider—to think about the work of God—that no one can straighten what he has made crooked.  The idea is—no one can change his plan—no one can alter his course or fundamentally alter his creation.  When you prosper—be joyful and receive it as a gift of God.  But know that he authors the tough times as well. Those are not cosmic accidents and he doesn’t just allow them, the author says he makes the day of adversity just as he makes the day of prosperity.  In his sovereign purposes God causes them.  When Job was finished with all his terrible trials, the author summarizes them this way in 42:11, “11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him…  Amos 3:6 says, “6 Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”

 

This is so encouraging because it tells us that when bad things happen, they are filtered through God’s wisdom before they get to us.  Because he loves us, when he places these adversities into our life, he has a good purpose for them.  He tells us to accept the bad with the good because God has dealt both to us.  One result of this is, “so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”  We can’t predict what will be in our future because it may be good in our sight or it may be very hard.  Because God authors both good and bad, there’s no telling what will happen.  Life may be very difficult, but just when it seems unbearable God can bring a season of blessing. The opposite is also true.  Life may be very enjoyable when a sovereign God has a great trial for us just around the corner.  This lack of predictability in life encourages us to throw ourselves in dependency upon him—trusting that whatever he gives—prosperity or adversity--will in the long run work to our ultimate good.

 

God wants us to have his perspective on trials on death, on sorrow and adversity.  Those are intended by him to be very profitable for us—we shouldn’t fear them or seek to vainly push them away.  Likewise, rebuke is not pleasant to give or receive, but it produces spiritual depth when it’s motivated by love.  Patiently wait for God as you endure the modest beginnings of life and the difficulties that brings.  For the believer, great blessing will be ours as we look forward to that day when we will all reap the benefits of lives lived with godly wisdom before God.  May God give us the grace to avoid the pervasive, inch-deep attitudes and activities of our culture and live wisely for his glory and our joy.


[1] Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, p.41 as cited in Longman, Ecclesiastes, TDNT, p. 185.

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