FROM ECCLESIASTES 8:16-9:6
When I worked in radio, one of the stations I worked for carried Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” broadcasts. Most of you know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t--these broadcasts became famous because the stories always ended with a “gotcha.” The first part of the true story included some generally generic details about someone or something or some event. The stories were told however in a very clever way that concealed the most important detail of the story until the very end. This kept the listener in suspense until Mr. Harvey would inevitable disclose that what he had been describing was NOT in fact generic, but was about someone or something or some event very famous or notable, important or amusing. The eight year-old little girl who lived in a village in England and sang who so loudly that she could and did drown out the British air raid sirens during World War Two was no ordinary little girl but was in fact… Julie Andrews. “And now you know... the rest of the story.”
Much of the Old Testament and certainly this morning’s text (if you will) is filled with truth but never gets to the rest of the story. What I mean by that is—although the Old Testament lays the groundwork for the climax of God’s redemptive plan through the laws and promises and prophets, the priesthood, kings, etc… we must wait for the New Testament to see how Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Covenant with the New Covenant in his blood. This morning’s text in particular seems incomplete and unsatisfying unless you know the rest of the story.
For instance, in today’s text—as in several other times in this book, we read of the injustices of life, but we don’t see how those injustices can (through Christ) be used for our good and God’s glory—nor is there any hope that these injustices will ever be righted. There are other truths about which the author has many more questions than answers. The incompleteness of the Preacher’s understanding—without the rest of the story, Jesus Christ presents a bleak picture at times. The value of looking into this dark text is at least two-fold. First, it helps us see how people without Christ (if they are thoughtful) are forced to look at life and it’s not a pretty picture. Second, the hopelessness of the Preacher’s Christ-less perspective helps us appreciate even more the hope available to those in Christ.
If we wanted to extract the main theme or idea from this text it would be something like: Life is filled with uncertainties about God and hard realities about our mortality. If the text sounded like a real downer when it was read earlier, it’s because it is. God is not totally out of the picture—he’s mentioned here, but much of the Preacher’s understanding of God and how he interacts with the world is shallow. Although God is not absent, the author is still speaking about realities “under the sun” which means that this treatment of life’s injustice is not fully informed even by Old Testament truth. The first of three major points is found beginning with verse 16. “16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God…” As we have seen in many other texts, the Preacher states that the great undertaking of his life has been to apply his great wisdom in an attempt to master or figure out what he calls in verse 16, “the business that is done on earth.” In the second half of verse 16, the Preacher broadly describes life through the use of an illustration. He says of this world’s business, “how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep.”
He says life is like insomnia. There is a restless, unsatisfying quality to it. There’s an incompleteness to it—like working hard all day and laying down to a good night’s sleep that never comes. He uses that illustration to capture the sense of futility, frustration and unfulfilled expectations that permeate life without a clear understanding of God’s purposes in the midst of this frustration. These opening verses are interesting because on the one hand, he clearly says that neither he nor anyone else could ever figure out how to master this life—it’s far too complex. He says in essence that if someone says he’s completely understood all of life’s complexities, he’s lying. One the other hand, these opening verses powerfully testify to the fact that—even with all the uncertainties and injustices, God is running the show, ruling this world in absolute sovereignty. He describes all of what goes on in this life as “all the work of God” in verse sixteen. In 9:1 he says that the deeds of the righteous and wise “are in the hand of God.” God runs everything, including what the righteous and the wise do and what happens to them. This first truth could be stated: Under the sun, no one can understand how God rules his world.
There are at least four possible responses a person can give to this life with all its injustices. First, is to look at the wickedness and injustice in this world and conclude that there must not be a God because if he existed, he wouldn’t run his world like this. A second option is that God exists but he has limitations. Given the unfairness of life, God is either not fully good or not fully in control—the problem is with God. A third option is to admit there’s much we don’t understand in this world, especially about the reality of evil, but we choose to trust that the deficiency is in us and our lack of understanding, not in God. Therefore, though we don’t understand much of the way this evil world works, we will trust in God and live with the frustration of not being able to understand everything.
This is where the Preacher is. He acknowledges that God runs the world and while he places no blame on him for the injustices, he is clearly frustrated that the complexities of this life are not able to be plumbed by the human mind. This is where a lot of believes are today. They don’t doubt God’s existence, but they experience great tension and frustration in their lack of understanding of how evil and injustice are so pervasive with God in charge of things. Any Old Testament saint—without Christ could have that perspective, but it’s incomplete and unsatisfying.
The fourth option is possible only when you factor the rest of the story into the equation—that part of the truth that the Preacher doesn’t have. The fourth option is—acknowledging both the existence of God and evil, but rather than being frustrated by the tension those two simultaneous realities present, you instead are able by faith to praise God in the injustices because you know that God acted definitely to solve the problem of evil through Jesus Christ and the gospel. In faith, you’re patiently waiting for the final working out of this solution accomplished in Christ, but you live with the assurance that when Jesus returns one day God will make all things right.
This is Paul in Romans 11 where, in spite of some very serious concerns he has for the salvation of the Jews, he is able to say, “33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
The Preacher looks at life and says, “no one can figure out how all this fits together.” Paul looks at life in Christ and in the midst of his uncertainties he is able to wonder at “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” In Christ, he celebrates that no one can figure out all of God’s purposes in the world and in salvation in particular, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Though not all of his questions are answered, he doesn’t just acknowledge God’s sovereignty like the Preacher, he rejoices in it. “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Everything that happens comes from him; it’s all worked out through his sometimes hidden sovereign purposes and redounds back to him for his ultimate glory. “To Him be glory forever. Amen.” Paul can worship God in the midst of many unanswered questions because Jesus has done the work on the cross to make all things right and has revealed God’s great love for his children.
Isaac Watts, in one of his lesser known hymns writes, “Where reason fails, with all her powers, there faith prevails, and love adores.” We can show adoration because Jesus Christ has come and done the redeeming work to make all things right. Jesus fully reveals BOTH God’s sovereign majesty AND his infinite love and goodness and that means that in the midst of life’s injustices, God is working together for GOOD for all those who love him and who are called according to his purpose. That leads us into the Preacher’s next major point. The tail end of 9:1 tells us, “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.” In context, what he’s saying is that God can love you or hate you. That means that the most important truth in the universe for a person to discover is whether God’s loves him or hates him and why. Without the rest of the story, the Preacher says you can’t know what God’s disposition to you is. He looked at those who were clearly godly and those who were clearly wicked. He records his findings beginning in verse two, “2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all…” The truth here is: Under the sun, (without a God-informed view) you cannot know from life’s circumstances whether God loves you or hates you.
Qohelet says that by his reckoning, there’s no difference in the life situations faced by the righteous or the wicked. “…the same even happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice…” His response to this is: “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.” If you study the lives of the righteous and the lives of the wicked, the same calamities, disasters, diseases, afflictions and injustices happen to both. There are no unique, outward signs of God’s love and favor. He says, “If you’re looking for empirical evidence of God’s favor on a person, you won’t find any.” These are verses the prosperity gospel teachers should commit to memory because, along with many other texts, they directly contradict their argument that if you trust in God, the blessing of God on your life will clearly distinguish you from those who don’t have God’s blessing.
The intensely frustrating question for the Preacher is—because there is NOT an outward manifestation of God’s favor--and God loves some people and hates others, how can you tell whether you are receiving God’s love or his judgment? This is a big problem for those who practice Islam. The Koran teaches that God loves certain people, but his love is conditioned upon obedience. If you do the right things—(or if the right things outweigh the bad things,) Allah will love you. The problem with that is—how do you know if you have done enough to earn Allah’s love? This is a question that agonizes many sincere Muslims and they have no way to answer it because—good people and bad people have the same things happen to them. There is no outward or inward assurance that Allah loves you. This frustration is driving hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world to Christianity.
The New Testament leaves no room for doubt on this question of God’s love and how a person can definitively know it. John tells us in First John chapter four, “9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” We don’t have to guess or speculate or worry about whether God loves us because he sent his Son for us. “8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God incarnate, glorious in all his perfections, became a man and suffered humiliation from people he created. He paid our debt to God—the tremendous debt we have racked up by our innumerable sins against him—breaking his law when he calls us to be perfect—like him. The insane, infinite distance that separates our unrighteousness from God’s righteousness has been bridged when on the cross Christ offered to his Father his perfect life in exchange for our sinful lives.
For those who rightly see their own sin and the vast chasm it creates between themselves and God’s love—for those who trust in the truth that God has through Christ made a way to bridge the span separating us from his love, John chapter four says, “16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” Paul too speaks of the truth that we can be sure of God’s love if we have savingly trusted in Christ. “38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But someone will say, “Yes, but how do you interpret the trials and injustices you suffer? How does that fit in with God’s love for you?” Here’s one answer. God has given his children a lens through which we’re to look at our hardships. He says in Hebrews 12 that we are to endure the hardships and injustices of this life as his discipline. God uses them to perfect our faith—to teach us to endure for his glory, to embed within us his compassion, to give us compassion for others and to reveal our sinful idols to us. Those are the kinds of lessons we learn through God’s disciplinary use of the trials in this life. The Bible teaches that these hardships not only DON’T bring his love into question—they are expressions of his loving discipline or training of us. Hebrews 12:6-7 says, “6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
Because everyone goes through suffering, the Preacher says there’s no way to know who God loves and who he hates. Followers of Christ who know the rest of the story can point to the injustices God uses to perfect us as incontrovertible evidence of God’s love for us. A third truth from these verses is found in the last three verses of our text. Ecclesiastes 9:3 says, “…Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”
This truth could be stated: The sin-soaked people of this world who are alive are far better off than those who are dead and have lost everything. As he often does in this book, the Preacher looks at death and the implications of death and without taking God into account the picture is hopeless. First, he establishes that no one deserves any reward—if there should be life after death. “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live…” The Preacher is no Pollyanna. He has a good understanding of the evil in our sinful hearts even to knowing that our sin causes us to act mad—insane—irrational. He says in verse four, where there’s life, there’s hope but once you die, nothing remains—a living dog—the most maligned of all Ancient Near Eastern creatures is better than a dead lion—the most revered beast. It doesn’t matter what you were in life, once you die—it’s over—no hope.
The dead don’t know anything, there’s no reward---everything about them perishes and they are eventually forgotten altogether. That’s not exactly a cheery assessment. But apart from Christ, it’s true—only it’s worse because the Preacher doesn’t factor in the reality of eternal judgment in hell. Without hearing the rest of the story, the Preacher speaks for billions of people in this world who have profound doubts about what will happen to them after death. Many in our culture speak of going to heaven when they die but in reality, it’s no more than wishful thinking for most. They’re so deceived as to genuinely believe they’re going to heaven because they are a good person and God is very reasonable and would have it no other way in their case. Those people are far worse off than the Preacher. The Preacher is looking with wisdom at what he sees in this world and says—there is no evidence pointing to anything other than, we live a hard life and then we die PERIOD—end of sentence! The people all around us—if they are honest will admit to having severe doubts about what happens after death for the same reason the Preacher did—they don’t see any tangible evidence. Their belief they’re going to heaven is not rooted in evidence of eternal life, but in denial of the penalty their sins deserve.
The rest of the story on this question is prophesied in many Old Testament texts, but not fully revealed until Jesus settles the matter. The apostle John looks at death very differently than the Preacher because he is looking through a Christ-informed lens with an understanding of how he has forever changed the way we understand death. Revelation 14:13 says, “13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Jesus not only removes the curse of death, he transforms it into a blessing for those who die in the Lord! The Preacher looked at death as the end of all existence; John says it’s blessed nap for the weary.
The difference between these two perspectives is in the evidence the Preacher had versus the evidence John knew about. John had empirical evidence that there is life after death because he was a witness to the resurrection of Jesus and Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection is the first-fruits of many more to come. Jesus told Martha in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” The hope pertaining to the next life for those who are in Christ couldn’t be brighter. Peter says it this way in First Peter chapter one, “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” There could hardly be a more stark contrast between the Preacher’s view of death and Peter’s and the difference is: the rest of the story, Jesus Christ. Paul speaks of the next life in First Corinthians 2:9, ‘But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” After death, Qohelet said there is nothing. Paul says there after death is nothing we can possibly imagine—it’s so rich, so glorious.
Let’s close with a word or two of application. The intense, powerful contrast between these two worldviews should bring some things into tighter focus for us. First, most of the lost people around us have the Preacher’s worldview or worse. This world view of the Preacher’s is the only reasonable one apart from Christ—it’s where the evidence leads us apart from Christ. This is wisdom—it’s just not fully uniformed. That means if you have any wisdom in this world apart from Christ, you’re hopeless. If you’re not all that wise, you are deceived. The question for us who are in Christ and who genuinely have this hope and the assurance of it by faith is—what are we doing for those who are either hopeless or deceived and that’s most of the people we meet on the street? Are we bringing any light into their dark world? Invite an unchurched friend to the Bible study this Wednesday. Tell them the rest of the story--the hope you have within you and God’s love through Christ.
we believe the good news? Do
we fear our own inevitable death or can we welcome it as a friend? I
was speaking to a devout woman of faith this week who’s terminally ill. She
has been through chemo and radiation and even though her cancer was not eliminated she’s refused any more treatment. She was beaming as she said, “I’ll
either get healed or get to go home and those are both great options!” That’s
what Christ does in a person’s life—death as a curse becomes death as a blessing. Do
you believe that way? Do
you know Christ and the love he offers to anyone who will trust in him? If
you haven’t trusted in him, do that today. Receive
the hope Christ has for you. Receive
his death on the cross as the payment for your sin penalty. Turn
from your sin and turn to Christ. Trust
in him today.
May God grant
all of us the grace to live as those who know and treasure the rest of the story for his honor and our joy.
 As quoted in Ryken, Ecclesiastes, p. 203.
Page last modified on 6/11/2013
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