The Abundance of Fools (Ecclesiastes 10:1-20)

Foolishness is not rare; therefore fools are also not uncommon. This is the sad state of affairs in a world filled with the results of sin. Desires of the flesh for wealth, pleasure, power and prominence have fueled a plethora of fools from well before the time of Solomon and extending to our own era.

I often am amazed when watching the news or something on television that includes famous people or folks who have achieved high level prominence, noting how common it is to see incredibly obvious flaws of character, speech, appearance and belief. They look like a fool, they think like a fool, they quake like a fool … so, they’re a fool. I’ll sometimes see a prominent political figure from the national scene who represents literally millions of people in congress. How they achieved the position is surely incredulous, for their entire demeanor is outrageous. If I were to deliver even a short devotional in the style of these fools, you would rise up to fire me from pastoral ministry, and rightly so. Yet fools prosper and abound.

Many of you may recall my multiple years of service in local political leadership and organization. Truly, God put me there for a season of time, I’m still not sure why. It was interesting for sure. I was able to meet some very fine people, even on the national level. At the same time, I encountered more than a few of the most troubled souls I’ve ever known – the type that Solomon would call a fool here in Ecclesiastes 10.

And foolishness has a great chance to multiply when the person who possesses copious quantities of it becomes a king/ruler. This chapter has that idea as a backdrop throughout. Such sinful leaders can be unpredictable and contentious, bombastic, directionless, incompetent, self-serving with party living, believing money is the answer to every situation. There’s a chubby shrub in North Korea who is an “exhibit A” of this chapter.

So how does one deal with living in a world where dishonorable, full-time fools can have great power and authority? Well, wisdom is still a virtue to exhibit, wherever we may find ourselves on the social ladder.

More specifically, the New Testament provides better answers that go along with Solomon’s advice. We’re to honor them by good citizenship, rendering to them what is appropriate. And better yet, we’re advised to pray for those in authority (as surely they need it!), especially toward the end that we may live peaceable lives for the advance of the gospel. This puts our focus on things eternal, not merely the foolish stuff of this world, and the fools who so frequently govern.

Ecclesiastes 10:1 – As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.

2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.

3 Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are.

4 If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great offenses to rest.

5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: 6 Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones.

7 I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.

8 Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.

9 Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.

10 If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.

11 If a snake bites before it is charmed, the charmer receives no fee.

12 Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.

13 At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—14 and fools multiply words.

No one knows what is coming—who can tell someone else what will happen after them?

15 The toil of fools wearies them; they do not know the way to town.

16 Woe to the land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.

17 Blessed is the land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness.

18 Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.

19 A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.

20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

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Wisdom is Better than Strength (Ecclesiastes 9:13-18)

I finished the devotionals last week by encouraging you to be sure to not miss the final two Sundays of the current series, and then I go and get sick and miss Sunday myself!  Well, this is a grievous fact about life under the sun. Even the toughest of us get sick once in a while. It is actually only the fourth time in 24 years in Maryland that I’ve had to get a replacement, so I’m thankful for that. But wow, it is so exceedingly weird to be home on a Sunday morning. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

The following example is going to be vague as it must intentionally be only generally referenced.

There is an organization that I have been a part of for a number of years. It has grown and is highly regarded at this time by many people. When I was first joining it at the beginning of this venture, the entire program was in jeopardy of discontinuance. I did not know this until later, being told after a time that something I had done had saved the fledgling organization from extinction. I was much flattered, though had only done what I thought to be the appropriate deed at that point in time. But does anybody associated with this organization still remember it? Not really. There is one person remaining who could testify that the story is true, but it has not especially benefited me personally in any way … and that’s honestly OK.

The old saying is that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  According to Wictionary.com, this means “Beneficial actions often go unappreciated or are met with outright hostility.”  This is essentially what Solomon writes about with a story illustration today …

Ecclesiastes 9:13 – I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.

17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Another saying is “money talks”  … meaning that those who have it and the associated positions of power that accrue from wealth will be more often heard than a wiser person who is poor. Conventional thinking is probably that if a person is truly wise, they would have found a way to not be classified as poor.

There is plenty to discourage participation of life energy in truly good things. The time given to such may take away from the time available to accrue personal gains. Being involved in serving others wisely and well may also require funding from one’s own pockets. There is the temptation to just give up such endeavors, retreat to your own job and home, work hard, save much, be wealthy, and just forget about the needs of others or using your skills or resources beyond your own walls.

But isolation is not the answer. Wise words and good deeds are better than the foolishness of the masses. Yet there is the reality that sinners will somewhat commonly make a mess of good deeds in a crumbling world. Your work might be forgotten … on this side.

But a great comfort is found in Hebrews 6:10, that though others in this world might forget what we do in serving God, the Lord will not forget. You gotta like this!  “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

The Common Destiny of the Grave (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)

So … you want to end the week on a cheerful note, right?  Sorry. Solomon continues in chapter 9 with his observations about the futility (the mere passing breath) of life. Recall again that his perspective is what can be naturally seen and known without special revelation. And though there is much instructive about his writings, we are blessed to be here 3,000 years later – with a completed revelation from God in the Scriptures, and the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ!  So, there’s that!  And that’s a lot!  It makes all the difference.

But … but … but … don’t get too cheerful just yet. We again have a passage that brings the inevitability of death to the front and center of our minds. Death, though not to be feared by the believer in Christ, remains still as the great enemy and the outworking of the curse of sin. It cannot be escaped … not by speed (so all that running I’ve done in my life won’t help … drat!), power, wisdom, wealth or brilliance (another drat!).

Yes, the reality of this comes home to us more and more as the years go by. We do begin to feel it from the inside-out. And if not that, we accumulate the sadness of more and more people whom we know who have gone ahead of us. My mother, who lived to age 96, only had one person at her graveside service who was not a family member or my personal friend. She outlived everyone in her immediate sphere of relationships.

The sadness of the passing of people came home to me again this week. I’ve lost a number of friends recently, some even from my own age group. And I was much saddened to get a note this week from the wife (also a distant cousin) of my best childhood friend through all of my school years. He has had a difficult-to-receive diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, being complicated by sepsis. Chemo begins Monday. She was putting me on notice that my services may soon be needed.

I often joke about getting older, “I thought this only happened to other people!”  The same with bad health news about peer group friends. But, we know better – Solomon reminding us or not.

But there are some words of cheer in the midst of this larger picture of stark and dark inevitabilities. We can choose to live in an intentional way – by choosing to devote ourselves fully to the work we have been given. And this is of course enhanced by what we additionally know as to how we may invest our lives in the Kingdom work of being God’s ambassadors of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5)

We’re going to finish the series over the next two Sundays with some good cheer also, even in the context of sobriety about material life realities. So … don’t miss it!

Ecclesiastes 9:1 – So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. 2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.

3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.

6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

11 I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.

12 Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

The Folly of Full Justice in Human Government (Ecclesiastes 8:1-17)

We have to agree with Solomon that a remarkable number of life events and observations do not have explanation or the look of justice. The wicked can prosper and prevail, even at the expense of the righteous. We would expect God to intervene more actively and quickly. But God does not always do that. Our sinful world is indeed a mess. We see it around us, though honestly it is far worse in most corners of the earth.

Throughout Ecclesiastes, we see the writer’s disenchantment with these circumstances, saying that God’s ways are not understandable for us. Yet he also commends a wise life throughout the book, saying that this remains the best plan for happiness and success in a crumbling world. God will make all things right at another time, beyond this world.

Rather than repeat so many themes of these past couple weeks, I thought I would share with you today some excerpts from a blog post I read from a missionary associated with our Evangelical Free Church missions arm of ministry, serving in Tanzania. Though she is not reflecting upon Ecclesiastes nor even referring to it, some of the themes of her writing fit with the thoughts we have been considering. In her article, which you can read in its entirety HERE, she writes …

Sometimes I think it’s easy for American Christians to see everything tragic that is happening “out there” and make the assumption that God could never let that happen to us. Disasters and tragedies happen to other people, to other nations. Not to Americans. Not to American Christians. As if we are somehow set apart, special, blessed.

Just a few countries north of Tanzania is South Sudan, which the Economist recently deemed the most miserable country of 2018. The unfortunate residents of South Sudan, 60 percent of whom are Christian, know little else other than war, rape and starvation.

Or how about Venezuela, which is also known as a Christian country? Inflation exceeds 1,000 percent, and the nation is experiencing extreme shortages of food and medicine.

And then there’s Syria. And Iraq. And North Korea. And countless others. I know with much certainly that Christians exist in all these countries. They are chosen and loved and saved by God, and they desperately seek after Him—our brothers and sisters. Yet He allows the Syrian Christian family to be forced to leave their home, their business, their country and become refugees at the complete mercy of others. He allows the North Korean Christian to be turned over to the torture camps by the betrayal of his own son.

And I think: Why do I assume this won’t happen to me, to my country of origin? Sure, I know I am not immune from cancer, from accidents, from tragedy. But do I really think that God holds America in a special category; that He won’t allow its destruction, that He won’t allow my financial ruin, that He will always ensure my country’s safety? …

… God does not owe American Christians anything. He does not owe me a savings account or health insurance. He does not guarantee that my children will have the opportunity to go to college and become prosperous citizens. He does not promise religious freedom, or pleasant vacations, or safety on American streets. He doesn’t even promise that America will continue to exist as we know it.

If God has allowed you a beautiful house on a tree-lined street, 2.5 children and religious freedom, fantastic. Use it all to His glory. Maybe that will be my life someday too. But it’s no longer my expectation. I’m not going to assume that America or the government or God will make my dreams come true. Everything I have already been given (which is a lot), I want to hold with an open hand. My hope is in Christ, my destination is heaven and nothing in this life is guaranteed (Romans 5:1-5). Today I have it; tomorrow I might not. He gives and takes away.

Does that scare you? It scares me. But it shouldn’t. If Christians all over the world have put their trust in God when running for their lives or suffering under an oppressive government or enduring a disease ravaging their community, then we can too. Maybe we need to pay better attention to how they do it.

Pretty good stuff, isn’t it?  Here is our passage for today …

Ecclesiastes 8:1 – Who is like the wise? Who knows the explanation of things? A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance.

2 Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?”

5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.

6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a person may be weighed down by misery.

7 Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?

8 As no one has power over the wind to contain it, so no one has power over the time of their death.

As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it.

9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt. 10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.

11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong. 12 Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.

14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

Man’s Lack of Righteousness (Ecclesiastes 7:15-29)

There is a common misunderstanding that there is a one-to-one connection between blessing for good deeds done, but judgment for bad deeds. We even joke and tease about it. We might see someone very blessed in some specific way and say, “So what did you do to earn that?”  Or we might tease someone by saying, “You’re going to pay a terrible price someday for that deed!”

This common thought was also present in Jesus’ time. On the occasion of Christ and the disciples seeing a blind man, in John chapter 9 the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And Jesus answers that his blindness was not at all related to this sort of one-to-one retribution.

Solomon begins today by noting the apparent injustice that righteous people have very bad things happening in their lives in spite of their upright ways, whereas certain sinful people seem to never pay any price and instead have prosperity abounding. And we too have all seen similar upside-down illustrations of injustice where the wicked prosper.

This passage is filled with a number of verses that are not actually communicating what at first glance they appear to say, some of it rather outlandish even!

Solomon is not saying that the best way to live is to have equal doses of righteousness and wickedness, doing all things in moderation. He is saying that you cannot depend upon your righteousness as a guarantee of universal blessing, nor should you think that there is no judgment for anything and thereby live a licentious life.

In several other passages in Ecclesiastes, Solomon talks about how God will be the ultimate judge, saying that evil will be dealt with. But it is done in God’s timing, and that cannot be known. Until then, there will be occasions where the wicked appear to get away with wrongdoing, while the apparently righteous suffer beyond expectation.

Another problem with “righteous” people is that they really don’t exist, not fully. Solomon accurately writes that none are righteous and sinless – a theme that Paul will establish at the beginning of Romans.

However, wisdom really is a great value. Though it will not make one truly righteous (perfect), it will supply great strength in life in terms of choices for the good and direction for avoiding the pitfalls of evil. That is the best that man can do under the sun.

To explain the odd man/woman remarks at the end of the chapter would take more words than you want to read today!  Trust me, believe me!  It is not saying that on average there can be found one good man out of a thousand, but never a good woman. Interpreting this has to do with where the “ellipsis” begins, complicated by the fact that the word for man (as in mankind) is “adam,” though that word is also being used as the proper name for the first human – Adam.  And then there is a sort of cumulative literary devise being used …… see what I mean?  The weeds are deep.

The intent of this communication as the passage ends is to say that there are no men or women who can be found who are purely righteous. Though created that way by God at the beginning, the reality of sin has taken all mankind down many bad paths.

The fact is that we are a mess. There is no such thing as “I’m OK, you’re OK” … the title and big idea of the famous 1969 self-help book by Thomas Anthony Harris. The truth is rather, “I’m a mess, you’re a mess.”  We are all sinners in line for judgment. Our lives can be enhanced, even in a sinful world, by applying godly wisdom. And the rest of the story of Scripture teaches that there is a gracious provision for deliverance from the curse of sin, but it does not happen fully in this life under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 7:15 – In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness.

16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?

17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time?

18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

19 Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful than ten rulers in a city.

20 Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.

21 Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—22 for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I tested by wisdom and I said, “I am determined to be wise”—but this was beyond me.

24 Whatever exists is far off and most profound—who can discover it?

25 So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.

26 I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.

27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered: “Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—28 while I was still searching but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.

29 This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”

Wise Living through the Ups and Downs of Life (Ecclesiastes 7:1-14)

Good times, bad times. Prosperity, adversity. Ups, downs. We all experience both extremes, that is the nature of life under the sun.

The trick in life is to respond with wisdom in both situations. It is not wise to live riotously during prosperous times, nor is it right to despair in difficult circumstances.

As Solomon reflects upon the ups and downs of life in our passage today in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, the summary statement is in the last verse – When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.

So how does one respond to bad times? Introspection and facing the realities of life is actually a good benefit from difficult days. Beyond this, it causes us to trust in God rather than our own resources. And again, as we have said earlier in this series, it causes us to refocus our hearts upon our true citizenship.

In the first four verses, the writer speaks of benefits that come from dark days, even in the face of death and mourning. I have lost several good friends in the last year, and the sobering sadness that accompanies the loss does indeed have a positive benefit of thinking about those things that are truly important and that truly last forever.

Ecclesiastes 7:1 – A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.

2 It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.

3 Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.

4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Many of life’s circumstances, both high and low, offer opportunities to discard the discipline of wisdom for the immediacy of foolishness. For example, when we are rebuked about something where we deserve to hear corrective words, it is easier to listen rather to the simple silliness of laughter. But the writer says this has the lasting benefit of the crackling coals under a pot – soon gone, like the “breath” … the meaninglessness of folly.

5 It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.

6 Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.

There are many temptations to abandon wisdom for the temporary satisfactions of foolishness. This includes the temptations that may come from wrongful gain of money, from impatience, from anger, or from longing for the better times of the past that may not have been as better as they are recalled …

7 Extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.

8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.

9 Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.

10 Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

But wisdom can enhance times of prosperity. Verse 11 (not translated the best here in the NIV) should be understood to be saying that when an inheritance is used wisely, this is a great benefit. And wisdom is pictured in verse 12 as a shelter that preserves a person in this life.

11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.

12 Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it.

But again, there are going to good times and bad times. God allows the bad times (not his original plan, but are the result of the curse of sin) as well as the good times. And his ways and purposes and timing cannot ever be fully known, no more than the future can be known. So the best policy in light of this is to live in trust of God’s sovereignty in our affairs. It is the old illustration of letting God drive, without us stepping in to take the wheel, nor us jumping out of the moving car.

13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?

14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one     as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.

The Reason Many Do Not Enjoy Prosperity (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12)

It would just seem to be so obvious that being reasonably wealthy should bring greater happiness. And perhaps for many of us middle-class types, a bit more in the way of material resources might enhance our lives and families in some positive ways. But being extraordinarily wealthy does not often get the happiness quotient in life to rise at all … maybe just the opposite.

I don’t know when the last time was that I did a Google search for illustrative material on a subject that brought up such a plethora of stuff as did a search for “wealthy but miserable.”  There was an immediate listing of articles and research studies that demonstrated the general pattern of the marriage of wealth and misery.

One of these was a very interesting article in The Atlantic just a few years ago that revealed information from a survey of super-wealthy people on the realities of their lives. The descriptive, lead paragraph said …

Does great wealth bring fulfillment? An ambitious study by Boston College suggests not. For the first time, researchers prompted the very rich—people with fortunes in excess of $25 million—to speak candidly about their lives. The result is a surprising litany of anxieties: their sense of isolation, their worries about work and love, and most of all, their fears for their children.

The average wealth of the respondents in the study was $78-million. And I loved this sentence: “Most of the survey’s respondents are wealthy enough to ensure that in any catastrophe short of Armageddon, they will still be dining on Chateaubriand while the rest of us are spit-roasting rats over trash-can fires.”  Now that’s quite a word picture!

The writer describes the folks in the survey as a rather miserable lot of people who are subject to a tremendous number of anxieties and life complications. It is as if Solomon came back to write an article for The Atlantic.

For example, whereas most of us find joy in doing something luxurious—like a dinner at a fine restaurant or the European vacation of a lifetime—the super wealthy have lost all ability to gain any psychological benefit from such an experience.

Having excessive wealth puts an odd and awkward strain on relationships. One said, “Very few people know the level of my wealth, and if they did, in most cases I believe it would change our relationship.”  Another commented, “I start to wonder how many people we know would cut us off if they didn’t think they could get something from us.”

Raising children in such an environment can be a nightmare. Efforts to build a work ethic are terribly difficult in a world of servants at every turn. And parceling out shares of the family fortune or inheritance at points of achieving certain ages does not work, for the person knows the money is out there and coming to them sooner or later.

By the end of this article, you are so thankful to not have the curse of riches in your life.

Solomon notes in today’s reading that it is a terrible evil to see a person who has been allowed by God’s providence to attain great wealth, but that God’s blessing to enjoy that wealth is not also present.

At the end of the day (or life), there is only one way to have contentment and happiness in life that is deep and genuine, and that is to have a relationship with God that grants a bigger picture of true and eternal realities. Apart from that, all riches or any other material resource can provide is a temporary pleasure … usually followed by longer and darker periods of misery.

The past two Sundays have led us to give two big words to move our minds beyond a pair of myths common to mankind.

  1. The myth of permanence—talking about the “dust to dust” nature of our material lives—has the actual impermanence of life mitigated by our adopting a bigger picture concerning our CITIZENSHIP. When we see ourselves as citizens of an eternal kingdom, it changes the way we look at everything in this temporal world.
  2. The myth of joy in abundant riches is answered by our commitment to strive toward CONTENTMENT in whatever circumstances we have in life. We can trust God for our basic needs, seeing ourselves as servants and our resources of whatever size as tools to be used for kingdom work.

Having these perspectives leads us to the ability to enjoy what God gives us as our prosperity. Without it, we can never truly experience happiness in this world.

Ecclesiastes 6:1I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: 2 God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.

3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. 5 Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— 6 even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?

7 Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.

8 What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?

9 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

10 Whatever exists has already been named, and what humanity is has been known; no one can contend with someone who is stronger.

11 The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?

12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?

Enjoying Prosperity is the Gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)

I almost got into a fight today. It was at the Pilot gas station on Halfway BLVD.

A man was filling his very nice vehicle a couple of pumps away, as his noticeably pretty wife (or whatever) was returning to the car from having been inside the building. He began yelling in an arguing sort of tone with extreme anger. It seemed to have something to do with spending money. His foul language increased more and more as his finished gassing the vehicle and drove away … past me with his window open and the ranting continuing.

I just impulsively said, “Yo dude, calm it down … it’s going to be alright … nothing can be this bad.”  He made a particular gesture toward me I can’t really describe in this setting, slowed down and addressed me with some words I cannot report as well. For a moment, I thought it might be “game on.”  But he drove away … yelling.

Here was a guy with some nice things in life. His car was certainly better than my 2001 minivan. But he was not enjoying his blessings.

We often see people in life who have a lot of blessings, but who also don’t seem to be able to enjoy them. Perhaps they feel their blessings are really not as significant as they actually are, aspiring to greater gains like they observe in the lives of certain others. We know also of people who do well, but all they do is work and strive for even more, as their job owns them.

If you think about it, happiness in life and work is not directly proportionate to the amount of gain that comes from it. Rather, the happiest people are those who find contentment in the use of the abilities that they have, being content also with the adequate life that God enables them to enjoy as a result – be it in abundance, sufficiency, or in meager circumstances. They accept their work and life as from God, believing also that He will supply their needs.

Solomon calls this the gift of God …

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 – This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

People like this do not regret and grieve the past, nor do they worry about the future. They live in thankfulness that God has been good to meet their daily needs at whatever social strata he had given them.

The New Testament passage of relative equivalence would be in Philippians 4:4-7 … Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

When we rest in God and in His gifts, we get also the gift of rest from Him.

Another New Testament writer says (Hebrews 13:5) … Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

The Emptiness of Mere Riches (Ecclesiastes 5:8-17)

I am pretty sure I was never that child who whines and whines to get something he really desires. I remember even at a young age that I perceived myself to be blessed beyond most other children I knew in terms of all that I had.

I was also a child who did not have much of a sweet tooth. Hearing other children whine to get candy annoyed me, and I didn’t want to be like that. I even recall my mother getting angry that she bought candy and had it in a particular cupboard but I never ate any of it, so she wasn’t going to buy anymore.

So perhaps it is all that background that causes me to especially remember an occasion when I did whine to get something, wearing down my parents and older sister to the point where they finally just gave in. It was at the beach in Wildwood, NJ where we vacationed each summer for at least two weeks. A favorite treat that I saw being purchased for many children on the boardwalk was cotton candy. Though I never had it, I was sure that I would like it. My parents and sister told me that I would hate it. But I persisted in pestering, and they bought me some.

It took only one touch and one taste to know that I had made a terrible mistake. It was sickeningly sweet and annoyingly sticky. Beyond that, I kept accidentally bumping into people (including my family) and getting cotton candy stuck on their clothing. I tried in vain to just give it away to other kids, but none would receive it. Eventually, my sister just snatched it out of my hands in frustration and threw it into a trash can.

Desiring and attaining wealth through successful labor can be much like being disappointed with a stick of cotton candy. It is not as great as it appears, and it can create unanticipated problems. Solomon points out a list of those problems.

Problem #1 – Wealth can be taken by oppressive and unscrupulous rulers …

Ecclesiastes 5:8 – If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

Wow. So who says the Bible does not talk about contemporary issues? It is inevitable that taxes will be a part of life in any civilized society. There are just roles of government that rightly require funding from the citizens who jointly benefit. But, we know it has also always been true that too often the taxation that happens is not in actuality for the benefit of the citizens, rather, it is to enrich those in power who can create and enforce such laws.

Problem #2 – Wealth creates more problems and complications than the blessings it bestows …

10 Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.

11 As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners     except to feast their eyes on them?

12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep.

Though it is generally perceived that money is the answer to address life’s problems, in actuality the acquisition of material resources can mark the beginning of newer and bigger problems.

First, loving money only leads to desiring more money. It never really satisfies. The most famous of the Rockefeller clan was asked at what amount did earning money finally satisfy. And his answer was, “After one more dollar.”

Secondly, having a lot of money and riches creates the problem of securing that wealth from those who might steal it. It becomes a consuming concern that never goes away. I was much struck by this during my several years of living amongst and working around the wealthiest people in Texas. Securing their wealth was a never-ending difficulty that involved every waking moment.

Problem #3 – Wealth can be lost in some misfortune.

13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, 14 or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit.

Some unforeseen circumstance such as a severe natural disaster has caused more than one person in life to lose all of a substantial fortune achieved over a lifetime of labor and careful acquisition. Whereas both the passing generation and the rising generation had expectations of passing along that wealth for the benefit of family, now it is lost. This is worse than having never possessed it in the first place.

Problem #4 – You’re going to die and you can’t take your wealth with you.

15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.

16 This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind? 17 All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.

When a person dies, the question is sometimes asked, “What did he leave behind?”  And an answer to that which actually fits every person is “everything.”  Everyone leaves everything behind. This raises the question as to what good it is in the first place, since it does not survive the current world.

So in it all, watch out for what you desire and covet. When you get it, it may not satisfy as much as you expect. This world is filled with people – many of them famous and known worldwide – who have everything in life that they could ever desire, other than a relationship with God and contentment and joy through knowing Christ.

Fearing God by Keeping Vows (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)

Today’s passage is not the first or last that we will encounter in Ecclesiastes that is difficult to interpret and understand. It includes the oft-quoted one-liner, “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”  After having read my collection of commentators on this passage, fewer words from them might have been helpful as well!

If I were to give a title to these verses that emphasizes the big idea to be applied, it would be “Keep It Real!”  The writer essentially condemns two practices being made by people of his era who were not fully genuine in their relationship with God: uttering foolish prayers and making stupid promises without any desire of keeping them.

Something I have observed throughout my life of attending church on a regular basis is to have seen people who do the same out of some sense of obligation that is rather thoughtless. It is as if they have some general sense that a weekly religious duty is a correct thing to do, though they are obviously not actually that interested in the content or in the mission of the church. Their participation is almost superstitious and is essentially just going through the motions. Or perhaps they believe that simply being there and singing a few songs and repeating a few prayers gets them a minimal number of credits with God to make life workable. It is kind of like an insurance policy.

Jesus was critical of making what he called “vain repetitions” in prayer. God is not merely interested in our attendance pattern or obligatory gifts and promises, he is interested in the genuine condition of our heart and relationship with him.

Our faith is not a weekly thing of rituals that are done to appease God so that he won’t whack us at other times, He being then also obligated to at least minimally bless us. It is not a daily thing where we make a few prayers of oft-repeated and essentially mindless words in order to appear to both God and ourselves that we are connected to the divine. Rather, the life of faith is a continuous relationship of taking God with us throughout all of life, moment by moment. We should think of our prayer life as a continuous conversation with a continually present, nearby friend. Our actions and deeds, as well as the use of our resources, should be incessantly cognizant of Kingdom values and the larger picture of ourselves as servants of the Lord in all we say and do.

Solomon is saying that the person who is not entirely genuine in the things he prays and promises is a person who is chasing after the wind. It is futility. It risks the loss of meaning in life, God’s judgment, and the loss of the benefit or our labors. Life therefore is merely going through motions, possessing but the briefest benefit of that one key word in Ecclesiastes – be it “vanity” or “futility” or “meaningless” – the mere results of breath upon a glass.

So, having called the writer the “Mayor of Realville,” here we have his encouragement to “keep it real” in relationship with God.

Ecclesiastes 5:1 – Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

3 A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool.

4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5 It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.