Can I Keep on Going?
Eccl. 7:11-14,15-18; 8:10-12,16-17
Tom J. Nettles
I. Chapter 7, verses 1-6 – Solomon shows that godly and wise living often values those things that are opposite of the preferences of the world.
A. A name that brings nods of respect and acknowledgement of godly virtue is far preferable to possession of the most precious material things. A good name is gained only through long and consistent practice of right and compassionate living. Job describes this in Job 29. In Job 30 he narrates the distress of losing one’s good name; in his case for no substantial reason.
B. The day of death better than the day of birth. All of us rightly rejoice at the birth of a new child. He is born, however, with a nature clogged with original sin, is by nature a child of wrath, and has before him the testing of all that a sinful, evil, and often cruel world can throw at him. The person, however, that finds life through the ransom of Christ, may say with Paul, “I prefer to die and be with Christ, which is far better.” At death his body no longer feels the oppression of corruption and decline and his spirit, now absent from the body but present with the Lord, has no more tendency to sin, is removed from any temptation to sin, sees no sin in the spirits of just men made perfect (of which group he is now a part), and is in the presence of Christ the righteous one. Though we understandably and rightly “ooh” and “AAAh” at birth and cry and console at death, for the child of God, the latter far exceeds the former in the life into which he is being introduced.
C. verses 2-4 – Though death is better than birth for the one that finds a redeemer and has the hope of eternal life, the intrusion of cessation of existence in the world and the termination of all earthly relations, nevertheless, brings a deep sense of loss for those left behind. The Preacher says that this shock and sadness, for those that look at it with wisdom, is instructive toward a deeper and abiding joy. Why is going to the house of mourning better than going to the house of feasting? Solomon gives us the answer.
1. “For this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” In the house of mourning, one sees in empirical reality the final condition of that comes to rich and poor alike, wise and foolish alike, perverse and pure alike, cruel and merciful alike, oppressive and just alike. He refers again to this certainty as he contemplates the death of the wicked in 8:10, “Then I saw the wicked buried.” Death is certain. “It is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27) “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) A contemplation of the certainty of death as it is appointed and as it is the wages of sin, and the sight of its work makes a person recognize that the truth, “after that the judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27) will not bypass him. Nothing that has been accumulated, nothing that has been laughed at, nothing that has elevated the earthly position of a man will support him at the time of death or attend him as he stands unadorned with earthly position and possessions before the bar of absolute justice.. Only if he is in a position to hear the verdict, “No condemnation,” will the day of death be better than the day of birth.
2. The House of feasting maximizes the ruse that there is nothing before us to fear. It makes the wicked think that his life will be prolonged “like a shadow,” just longer and longer as the sun goes down (8:13). The house of feasting seeks to smother the haunting, but healthy, consciousness that we can take no measures finally to avoid being stripped of everything by the piracy of the lurker, death, sent by the just avenger, God, to bring us to judgment. Feasting fools us into thinking that we can just continue to fill our moments with tidbits of taste, or witty conversation, and avoid isolation with our thoughts of guilt that might rise up and smite us. The house of mourning strips that deadly façade from the mind.
3. If sorrow is prompted by having laid to heart the reality of death and its cause, then its value far exceeds any moment of laughter. If sorrow arises from poverty of spirit in the face of the moral cause of death and the blessing of being brought to mourn for one’s sin, then the outcome will be comfort (Matthew 5:3, 4). Sadness of face in a genuine mourning for sin gladdens the heart with forgiveness.
4. Since death is the wages of sin, sin can only be answered by death. Being in the presence of death reminds us of this amazingly salutary fact, that “through death” Jesus, in our nature, destroyed “him that has the power of death, that is, the devil” and delivered those “who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” This he did by making “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14-17). The heart of the wise, therefore, is indeed in the house of mourning reflecting on how this very death, so cold and threatening before her eyes, has been shouldered by Jesus the Redeemer and by his triumph over it has removed its sting. Fools, however, refuse to think of such things; its interrupts the jokes and the buffets and the superficial witty conversation. Why should anyone purposefully embrace a damp to her mirth?
· “Sing on, sing on,” the fool says, while the wise says, “Look at the corpse, and consider that one day your body will be such. But the spirit will return to God who gave it. What then will be your song?” Can we say “And when in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song; ‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.”
· “Laugh on, Laugh on. Cackle and guffaw at all the jokes and don’t let the black crepe cover your merriment,” says the fool. “You only live once and you must sap all the joy out of life while you have it.” Such frivolous focus on the pleasures of the flesh in earthly existence is vanity.
II. Chapter seven, verses 7-14: One must learn to be patient in present circumstances and trust in the providence of God and the justice of his decree.
A. verse 7 - A wise person, with a keen sense of justice and who attempts to do right and be equitable in all his dealings, finds the phenomenon of oppression maddening. Particularly is the situation galling and inflaming to the emotions when, not only does the mighty oppress the weak, but they use their position and wealth to bribe the officials that are appointed to protect the rights of the poor and powerless. How can God be in control when truth is on the scaffold and error holds the rope? When we look at sin and evil, including the power of covetousness, as an isolated phenomenon and see how it seems to dominate every sphere of public life and worms its way into the life of the church also, we can be distressed, despairing, and angry. The human emotions and affections must, therefore, be imbued with a larger perspective on reality—one that takes account of a perspective that is known only by the propositions of divine revelation. [It is this perspective that is opened in the first six seals of Revelation 6. The Lamb of redemption opens the book sealed with seven seals, and the first seal was a presentation of his kingship, on a white horse with a bow and a crown. He controls all the movements of the earth—the strife among nations, the presence of famine; even the death of the martyrs, fifth seal, and assures them that he has yet more wrath to bring on the earth to demonstrate the malignity of human sin and the power of his justice and holiness.]
B. verse 8 - Though the present circumstance may appear bleak, we know that in the end God will sow his justice, righteousness, holiness, and judgment and every sin shall receive its due recompense. The contrite and patient in spirit that trust in God, both as a deliverer here and hereafter, will find the end of a thing true and pure and righteous. “The end of a thing,” that is, the purpose for which God decreed it, will show the wisdom of God in working all things together for good for those that love God and are the called according to his purpose. Though we can not see the end, we nevertheless have the word of God concerning these things and will submit humbly to his wisdom rather than vaunt ourselves against God and question his ways.
1. verse 9 - Anger arises from impatience, which in turn arises from a sense of injustice. When anger energizes us to change a situation that in reality is unjust, then anger becomes a positive motivation and can be called righteous indignation. Jesus manifested this on notable occasions. ( Mark 3:4, 5; Matthew 21:12, 13; John 2:13-17; and to us Ephesians 4:26, 27) When anger arises from a perceived injustice to us, but in fact is based on a self-centered conceit, then anger merely compounds the sinfulness of our egocentricity. This kind of anger will lead us into error, into the way of fools. It lodges there and seethes, releasing a corrupting infection into the spirit.
2. verse 10 - A show of distrust in God’s decree sometimes results in a glorification of former days, from which we isolate memories that we have adorned with fanciful joys and innocence that simply were not true. We tend to think that sin was less prominent, and we were in greater control. Now that our day has passed and a younger set has assumed the reins, the days are bad, neither as wisely administered nor as joyfully spent as those times gone by. In so doing we overestimate our own righteousness, underestimate the constancy of sin in every person and every generation, and question the wisdom of God in carrying out his purpose from generation to generation (“For the Lord is good; His love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100:5)
3. Verses 11, 12 – Should a person receive an inheritance, it is a God-given privilege for earthly advantage to those that combine its material possibilities with wisdom. An old show, “The Millionaire” regularly demonstrated the futility of a windfall if it came to foolish, self-centered people. Both money and knowledge flaunted and trusted without wisdom can turn its possessors into a proverb of self-destruction sending forth circles of a vacuum that sucks in lingerers into the same hole of moral obliteration. In the case of both money and knowledge, “wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” Here we must recall other points that have been made about the power to enjoy wealth, possessions, and honor, and particularly how the most enduring use of wealth is that which makes friends for the gospel.
4. Verse 13 – In each of these issues, The Christian must recognize that, while the decree of God does not diminish the pure justice of his judgments of sinners, it does give hope that even through the crookedness of this world God maintains his control of the end of all. If for purposes of His own, we find crookedness permeating all eras, if this crookedness (as it has indeed) comes from the fall, then know that the situation allows God to bring all sin to visible judgment and magnify the pure gratuity of his merciful intervention and to bring all the nations of all ages to see the inexhaustible beauty of Christ as the single person in whom all these attributes manifest their perfect harmony.
C. Verse 14 – In view of all these things, therefore, the person that is molded by revelatory wisdom will accept both prosperity and adversity. The one, from the standpoint of seeing prosperity as a small foretaste of the pleasures that exist at the right hand of God (Psalm 16:11), and the other as an opportunity for reflection on the shortness, vanity, and sinfulness of our own lives. God has made both of these and which of them will dominate the short future we still have in this age, we cannot tell, for God controls the progress of history in terms of his redemptive purpose—to increase wrath at times and to manifest the sovereign pleasure of mercy at others. “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:17, 18).
III. Chapter 7:15-24 – Solomon reflects on the relative nature of all human righteousness and wickedness and that none can make a final adjudication of either of these in this life if the standard of measurement is one’s temporal, and apparent, well-being. Issues of wickedness and righteousness overlap in every person’s life along the spectrum from absolute good declining to complete corruption. There is an absolute good, and there is, or will be, an absolute corruption of good; neither of these, however, can be observed in any person or situation in this life
A. verse 15 – What Solomon observed about the wicked, Job stated as a matter of long observation in his response to Zophar in Job 21. “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes. . . . The evil man is spared in the day of calamity” (Job 21:7, 8, 30). Likewise, the righteous often find their temporal condition look like a manifestation of divine displeasure, As Job bitterly observed, “When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hands of the wicked.” (Job 9:23, 24). David, acting in wickedness, succeeded in killing Uriah, acting in integrity. Ahab, pouting because of a disappointed covetousness, found himself in possession of his desired treasure while Naboth, acting with integrity, honesty, and respect for his forefathers, found himself falsely accused of blasphemy and stoned to death, thus losing what he had protected in his integrity (1 Kings 21:1-16).
B. Verses 16 – 24 – This apparent incongruity, however, should not make us draw wrong conclusions about the realities of righteousness and wickedness in the world. We must not forget that the most righteous still have remaining sin that should be confessed and lamented and is always susceptible to divine correction. The openly sinful who seem to pass this life without judgment will be judged with absolute equity and they should not, therefore, become a model for living by anyone.
1. Be perceptive, therefore, concerning the mixture of the wicked and the righteous in this world and, more profoundly, the integration of wickedness and righteousness in your own soul (“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” Romans 7:21-23). “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise,” does not minimize the importance either of real righteousness or true wisdom from above. This statement warns against any false evaluation of either our righteousness or our wisdom. We must not judge others as if we maintain the standard of righteousness by which all others are to be evaluated. All, even the unregenerate, tend to do this. “For in passing judgments on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11, 12) By setting a standard for others that we ourselves do not maintain adds the sin of self-righteousness, thus calling into question our trust in the perfect righteousness of another (Jesus Christ), represses personal repentance, and makes us more susceptible to the resentment of others, not for reasons of true righteousness, for which we should be willing to be persecuted, but for a judgmental detachment from others. In addition this kind of “overly righteous” style brings us under divine chastening, or perhaps even wrath.
2. Verse 17 –
Being not “overly wicked” does not mean that a certain degree of wickedness is
tolerable. It means do not give way to wickedness simply because you know that
indwelling sin permeates all that you do. Do not use the doctrine of depravity,
or the doctrine of sovereign grace, to give an excuse for the lack of rigorous
efforts at sanctification. “Neither be a fool.” Do not use the doctrine of
providence to make you stop making necessary plans for life or taking necessary
precautions to preserve it. If the fool and the wise man both die, some one
might reason, and even the wise find that their perceptions of reality lead
them to assert the vanity of all temporal things, then why not live foolishly
rather than spend the reflective energy to seek wisdom? Even though this
reasoning has a plausibility from the way events appear in the world, from a
moral standpoint living as a fool is wrong, and seeking true wisdom is right. Some
pervert the doctrine of sin and the doctrine of
3. verse 18 – In looking at both these situation, the godly person will be discerning as to how he should consent fully to the doctrines of personal holiness and remaining sin without drawing false conclusions from either. For the one that fears God, the pursuit of personal righteousness will not merge into an attitude of self-righteousness nor make him a punctilious judger of others; nor will the reality of his own sin, pervasive and inescapable while in this fallen world and corrupt body, drive him or her to a capitulation to the ever-hovering presence of indwelling sin. “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:12-14).
· Verse 19 - The person that is truly wise, in a spiritual way, will not relent in his struggle with sin from without and from within. The greatest strength in this life is the strength to persevere in the high calling of conformity to Christ and to root out all that would allure our affections to be satisfied with conformity to the world. This should help us know that our greatest efforts in the perception of true righteousness are to be directed toward ourselves and not toward others. If we cannot correct ourselves, we certainly cannot see clearly to help another pilgrim along the way.
· Verses 20-22 - Rather than putting skids to our pursuit of being pleasing to God, the doctrine of sin should make us see that we never in this life reach a plateau of perfection, but always should press on. We know that the things in which we have condemned others, we also are to be found offenders. We may not conclude, therefore, that we have a right to feel superior to others even when we are most rigorously involved in the pursuit of godliness. We will remember that the things that we notice in others and find as fodder for a condemning spirit have been issues in our own lives. “Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.”
4. 8:10-13 – Nor should the wicked think that any temporary reprieve in judgments means that it will not come with fullness and certainty at last.
· Solomon has seen burial of the wicked, giving certain testimony that death comes to all men, no matter how much they might be able to protect themselves for long periods of time in this life, and no matter how many wicked things they have done for which they have received no just recompense.
· These wicked people, whose death Solomon has seen, feigned worship and praise. They are like those described by Isaiah, “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame.” (Isaiah 66:5)
· Verse 11 - The fact that they have done wickedly and have seen no punishment, even at the hands of those responsible for maintaining justice, has led them to think that no judgment at all will come and has thus encouraged an increase of evil.
· Verses 12, 13 - Even though a wicked man’s life might be prolonged in his evil, it will not go well with him, for he must appear before God, and he will appear as one that has not feared and worshipped God. He cannot prolong his days forever—eternal life in the presence of the joys of the Lord will not be his, but an endless duration of just retribution.
C. verses 23, 24; 8:16, 17 - Even with all these observations about human righteousness, sin, wickedness, divine decree and resultant providence, and the need to maintain a wise balance in all things, the Preacher finds that final discernment of the ways and purposes of God is far beyond even to most rigorously applied human wisdom. He had given himself to find out all that a person possibly could know—“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day not night do one’s eyes see sleep, . . .”(8:16)—all of these things—riches and poverty, joy and sorrow, life and death, sin and righteousness—Solomon observed with the intent of knowing the final meaning of all, and it eluded him. All of our experience, even when most purposefully applied to understanding and wisdom, cannot grasp the intricate and infinitely wise weavings of the mind of God in the tapestry of history. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever, Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36). The historian that knows the most of the past and has observed and worked to discern the inter-relationships of events finds that he cannot grasp all the factors that constitute any single event. “I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much a man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out” (8:17) It all escapes him and he must await the final revelation of divine purpose. “That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:24). Only when God begins his unfolding of the purpose, as well as the true moral texture, of all the events of history will we see and enjoy eternally the manifestation of the providential wisdom and incomprehensible justice of God. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:2, 3)
IV. Chapter 7:25-29 – No more than a quick summary. In Solomon’s broad experience of seeking to grasp the intricacies and heights of true wisdom and in his personal venture into a disturbing and destructive public policy that greatly compromised his personal life to find out the madness of folly, he made a distressing discovery. He found no woman at all that would do other than bind fetters and snares on a man and lead his heart into sin. His experience with 700 wives and 300 concubines whose influence led him to turn “away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4), made him draw a conclusion that we should see as an intensely personal contemplation (“I find something more bitter than death.”) It is not to be seen as a universal judgment, other than as a statement about the universality of sin. The Bible throughout gives wonderful examples of woman that receive an abundance of grace and have particularly pivotal roles in the history of redemption. The trouble that God sent into Solomon’s path, because of his failure to be true to the covenant and the statutes given him by God, led him to see that rare was the man that could be trusted “one man among a thousand” [vide his experience with Jeroboam, 1 Kings 11:28, 40] but no woman. It did show him, however, this truth, “That God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”