Posts Tagged 'Ecclesiastes'

Panic Podcast: The Everything Bible Study – Part 14

Time to start a brand new week, and who doesn’t need a little more wisdom to start it off on the right foot?  Today we are looking at Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in our Everything Bible Study.

 

Dealing With Authorities

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King Solomon was trying to make sense of life by studying life itself. He recorded his observations to share them with his son. For at least part of his search, Solomon was away from the Lord. The conclusions he made during this period are a mixed; some times they are spot on, other times they are the cynical observations of an unhappy, dissatisfied man. Here are some of those conclusions about some very profound topics.

Conclusions about injustice, Ecclesiastes 3:16, 17; 4:1—6

Moreover, I notice that throughout the earth justice is giving way to crime, and even the police courts are corrupt. I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everything man does, both good and bad.” (Ecclesiastes 3:16, 17 TLB)

The idea of “justice” was a big deal in the Old Testament. Most of the times, “justice” was linked to God’s judgment, something that modern Christians don’t really grasp. Today, we speak of things undefinable like “social justice,” as opposed to the what the Bible spends a lot of time dealing with: “retributive justice.” This Biblical form of justice is at the root of the Jewish sacrificial system and ultimately finds fulfillment in the work of Christ on the Cross.

Solomon’s initial observation is that of a cynic. Of course, crime and corruption are not rampant everywhere, but those things certainly do exist in societies around the globe, including ours. The average person hears about political corruption or the ineffectiveness of our legal system and he complains about it,  sounding a lot like Solomon does in verse 16. The conclusion is not to be taken as another expression of fatalism; that’s not Solomon’s style. It is, rather, a statement of absolute fact. Nobody “gets away with it” forever. God sees everything a man does—the good and the bad. And God is able to discern whether what a man did in life was good or bad. We have a difficult time with discerning the motives of the heart, but God is expert at that!

There is a New Testament echo of what Solomon wrote here:

Yes, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12 TLB)

Ultimately, no matter how activist we may be; no matter how hard we may work to reform government, the problem of unjust rulers is solved by a just God. Ultimately, those who escape paying for their crime and corruption on earth, will stand before the great Judge of the Universe, and they will have to give account to Him for their conduct on earth.

Conclusions about the abuse of power, Ecclesiastes 4:1—3

Next I observed all the oppression and sadness throughout the earth—the tears of the oppressed, and no one helping them, while on the side of their oppressors were powerful allies. So I felt that the dead were better off than the living. And most fortunate of all are those who have never been born and have never seen all the evil and crime throughout the earth.

Solomon had just concluded that God would eventually redress the harm done by corrupt rulers, and that justice—God’s justice—would prevail. But knowing that Biblical truth in your head doesn’t always translate well to the emotions of your heart. Seeing the corruption and cronyism of American politics, for example, can lead you to a sense of hopelessness and a feeling that “we can’t do anything about it.” When you dwell on the negative for too long, you can get positively depressed! That led Solomon to a very cynical conclusion: it’s better not to bring a child into such a world.

This is not the thinking of a rational man; it’s the thinking of the emotional mood of the moment. It makes for a horrible philosophy of life. In fact, later on in this book, the author comes to the exact opposite conclusion!

There is hope only for the living. “It is better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 TLB)

In the following group of versions, we see another pessimistic conclusion reached by the cynical Solomon:

Then I observed that the basic motive for success is the driving force of envy and jealousy! But this, too, is foolishness, chasing the wind. The fool won’t work and almost starves but feels that it is better to be lazy and barely get by, than to work hard, when in the long run it is all so futile. (Ecclesiastes 4:4—6 TLB)

What the Teacher has written here are barely half truths; anybody who truly believes these three verses needs to “pause and reflect!” There are, indeed, some who are greedy and full of envy who somehow achieve what appears to be success, but looking further, we see that most successful people are that way because, in the beginning, they wanted to feed their families or not be a burden on their families or society at large. These successful people simply reaped what they had sown; they worked hard and were rewarded accordingly.

So, to be envied because of one’s success is bad, but to strive to achieve that success in order to best your neighbor is worse. Yet, in the end, hard work and activity are necessary components of “the good life.”

Now, there is a bit of wisdom hidden in the cynicism. It’s wrong to seek success just to “keep up with the Jones’.” But it is also wrong to be lazy and to just not work. It’s foolish to think it’s better to “barely get by” than it is to work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labors.

A different translation of verse 6 reveals what may be the missing balance; the Living Bible’s paraphrase may be a bit over the top.

Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. (KJV)

It’s wrong to build a fortune on a foundation of greed and avarice. It’s also wrong to be lazy. It’s good to both work and to take time to relax. Sometimes even the best believer may, in his sincere efforts to get ahead, get all caught up in the stress that comes with the wrong kind of ambition. When that happens, it’s best to find that place of quietness.

Conclusions about the king, Ecclesiastes 8:1—5; 11—13

The Bible has a lot to say about the believer’s relationship to and with authority, and most of it can be annoying. Over in the New Testament, we read things like this:

Obey the government, for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. (Romans 13:1 TLB)

The rest of Romans 13 goes downhill from there!

Pay your taxes too, for these same two reasons. For government workers need to be paid so that they can keep on doing God’s work, serving you. Pay everyone whatever he ought to have: pay your taxes and import duties gladly, obey those over you, and give honor and respect to all those to whom it is due. (Romans 13:6, 7 TLB)

As annoying as Paul’s advice to the Romans sounds, it should be noted that living in obedience to the governing authorities is generally God’s will for all believers. It should also be noted, though, that the overriding principles in obeying the governing authorities as far as Paul was concerned is this:

Never pay back evil for evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honest clear through. Don’t quarrel with anyone. Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible. (Romans 12:17, 18 TLB)

Sometimes, in the case of moral or ethical issues, it may not be possible for a believer to obey a government edict.

Back in Ecclesiastes, we read this little “ode to wisdom”—

How wonderful to be wise, to understand things, to be able to analyze them and interpret them. Wisdom lights up a man’s face, softening its hardness. (Ecclesiastes 8:1 TLB)

This verse is important in light of what follows. Solomon’s advice to his son is the same as Paul’s advice to the Roman church, but the reasons are different.

Obey the king as you have vowed to do. Don’t always be trying to get out of doing your duty, even when it’s unpleasant. For the king punishes those who disobey. (Ecclesiastes 8:2, 3 TLB)

Solomon indicates that obedience to the king is part of your oath to the king—it’s part of your duty. Paul’s advice is slightly different; in Romans, the governing authorities are deserving of your obedience, not because of any oath you may have taken but simply by virtue of their position. In fact, Paul links obeying or respecting governing authorities to complying with God’s will!

Back to Solomon, here is the balance:

The king’s command is backed by great power, and no one can withstand it or question it. Those who obey him will not be punished. The wise man will find a time and a way to do what he says. (Ecclesiastes 8:4, 5 TLB)

In other words, it’s wise to obey the king because he or the state has the power to punish you if you don’t. But, a wise individual will find a way to obey the king. As one scholar noted:

In the face of of impossible circumstances or unbending authority, one does well to compromise when moral issues are not involved.

Conclusions about crime and punishment, Ecclesiastes 8:11—13

Because God does not punish sinners instantly, people feel it is safe to do wrong. But though a man sins a hundred times and still lives, I know very well that those who fear God will be better off…

Verse 11 is one of those verses that most of us think we made up out of our own experiences, yet here Solomon declares it to be a fact. It seems to a lot us that the wicked will never get their just deserts! It’s worse than that; because punishment seems not forthcoming, these same wicked sin even more, emboldened by the belief they’re never going to pay for their wrongdoing. However, in spite of the contradiction of appearances, Solomon knows the truth. And you should too! Nobody, but NOBODY, gets away with sin!

And yet, the wisest man who ever lived reached another cynical conclusion:

There is a strange thing happening here upon the earth: Providence seems to treat some good men as though they were wicked, and some wicked men as though they were good. This is all very vexing and troublesome! (Ecclesiastes 8:14 TLB)

Eventually, Solomon would snap back to his senses; he would figure things out from the correct perspective. Many years later, the prophet Malachi would have problems with his people, who had become disillusioned with the Lord because they had become cynical:

Listen; you have said, ‘It is foolish to worship God and obey him. What good does it do to obey his laws, and to sorrow and mourn for our sins? From now on, as far as we’re concerned, “Blessed are the arrogant.” For those who do evil shall prosper, and those who dare God to punish them shall get off scot-free.’ ” (Malachi 3:13, 14 TLB)

Most of us have probably said things like that, and we, of course, don’t really consider these words to be true. They’re “idle words,” and we assume God understands our frustration. He does understand our frustration, of course. But there is no such thing as an “idle word.” Reading on in Malachi, we understand that the Lord pays attention to our attitudes and our words:

Then those who feared and loved the Lord spoke often of him to each other. And he had a Book of Remembrance drawn up in which he recorded the names of those who feared him and loved to think about him. “They shall be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in that day when I make up my jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares an obedient and dutiful son. Then you will see the difference between God’s treatment of good men and bad, between those who serve him and those who don’t. (Malachi 3:16—18 TLB)

The wisest among us is the one who, though he may not understand all he sees or even experiences, trusts that the Lord has it all under control and that in the end, God’s Word and will shall prevail.

Time and Eternity

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Ecclesiastes 3:1—15

How do you view time? For some, time is linear; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It moves in one direction, like a stream. Others view time as circular; that what’s happening today has already happened, and is destined to happen again. Still others see time as but a mere blip in the age of the universe. For Christians, though, time is best viewed as a gift, given by God and blessed by Him. We read this in Genesis 2:3—

God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he ceased this work of creation. (TLB)

Most of us don’t think of sanctification in terms of time, but we should. If we did, we might take verses like these a little more seriously—

So be careful how you act; these are difficult days. Don’t be fools; be wise: make the most of every opportunity you have for doing good. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to find out and do whatever the Lord wants you to. (Ephesians 5:15—17 TLB)

A time for everything, Ecclesiastes 3:1—15

This book of Ecclesiastes is a book, often written in poetic form, of philosophy, theology, and practicality. At it’s heart, this book is about a man’s search for meaning in life. It was written by Solomon to his son, but it does contain pearls of wisdom that did not originate with the him but were common to Solomon’s time.

It has been observed that in chapter 3, Solomon’s search for meaning takes in the philosophy known as fatalism. Fatalism is a common philosophy found in many world religions. Buddhism is a fatalistic belief system. Platonism is fatalism. Even within Christianity you can find streaks of fatalism; the idea that one has no control over his or her own life. It’s always funny when theologians of this persuasion twist and turn their dangerous philosophy inside out to accommodate the reality of “free will.” In society today fatalism is very popular. There is a horrible notion abroad that “the way things are is the way they will be.” What a depressing way to live!

But there is a more balanced way to view these verses that recognizes God’s sovereignty is actually complimented by man’s freedom and ability to adjust his life to God’s will. One scholar noted:

This passage has a restrained majesty of movement, as though the river of life were two currents flowing between the same banks. There is a current of permission and a stream of prohibition. It is a part of the wisdom of life to know where to catch the flowing tide and not to waste hope and effort on what cannot—at that time at least—be done.

Yes, God has ordained the order. Our job is to find ways to live within that order.

Life and death, verses 1—3

There is a right time for everything: A time to be born; a time to die; a time to plant; a time to harvest; a time to kill; a time to heal; a time to destroy; a time to rebuild. (TLB)

We can see the fatalism in these verses; a sense that there is “a time to get and time to lose.” There is a time you can win playing the stock market, but eventually you will lose. Taking life as it comes is fatalism.

However, the balanced view remembers that God is sovereign; He is in control of all things. What we should notice in these verses is that while God is sovereign, man is responsible to discern the right times for the right actions. It is man’s job to plan his life around the sovereignty of God. When man does that, life is a beautiful thing to behold!

He has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV)

A good New Testament parallel to what the Teacher is saying in these verses would be Ephesians 2:10—

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (HCSB)

In these first three verses of Ecclesiastes 3, we see that God has a program for man’s life and death. It’s His will for babies to be born, and His will that those born will eventually we die. Man needs to understand this. We may think the cycle of life and death is just common sense, but consider the astronomical amount of money many people (Christians included) spend in the last few weeks of life just to find a way to eke out some extra time on earth by postponing the inevitable. This idea is linked to the seasons. Man needs also to understand how to abide by the seasons. Can you see what the Teacher is trying to get across? It’s more than just fatalism; it planning your life around the inescapable facts that (1) your time will come to an end; (2) you have to plan your life (planting and harvesting), as well as your death, within the parameters of God’s will.

But life and death are not only in God’s hands; they’re in ours, too. The Teacher has in mind things like capital punishment and war, for example. Man must have the ability to discern when it is time take a stand and fight and when it is time compromise and heal a bad situation. When does a law breaker deserve life sentence and when does he deserve to die for his crimes? Does he need his mind healed? It’s all up to man, and he needs to learn how to make these decisions within God’s sovereignty.

Relationships, verses 4—8

John Donne understood “no man is an island,” but long before he figured it out, Solomon was telling his son about the importance of healthy human relationships.

A time to cry; a time to laugh; a time to grieve; a time to dance; a time for scattering stones; a time for gathering stones; a time to hug; a time not to hug; a time to find; a time to lose; a time for keeping; a time for throwing away; a time to tear; a time to repair; a time to be quiet; a time to speak up; a time for loving; a time for hating; a time for war; a time for peace. (TLB)

There is an appropriate time for different kinds of behavior, like laughing and dancing or crying and loving. Life is complicated when relationships are put into the mix. Acting, interacting and reacting among others is an art! Navigating and negotiating the convoluted world of emotions and feelings takes skill and if you are a Christian, you want to get it right before you offend too many people.

Deftness is required if we want to be successful in our relationships. This is important because the Bible places a premium on human relationships. In fact, there are those who believe (and they may well be right) that healthy human relationships are at the very core of God’s will for man. And once again, we can pray for direction and illumination, but in the end, it’s to man to figure out how to best live with his fellows.

Eternity in our hearts, Ecclesiastes 3:9—15

Everything is appropriate in its own time. But though God has planted eternity in the hearts of men, even so, many cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. (TLB)

God has a time for everything. This is another way to saying God has a plan. Man, because he is insatiably curious, is desperate to know as much as he can about what that plan is. For those who don’t believe in God, they probably believe in destiny. The same thing holds true: we want to know what the future holds.

This quest for answers is one thing that separates man from the animals. Animals have no sense of time; man does. God has given man a sense of “eternity.” That means many things, but it essentially means man has a desire to “know” and understand. This is an aspect of our creation that makes us like our Creator.

In the days of the Garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam and Eve in person, face to face. He told them what they needed to know. The Fall occurred when they, our first parents, preferred to figure things out themselves; to lean on their own understanding. Essentially they cut themselves off from God, and God left them, more or less, to figure life out for themselves.

Now, we as Christians have the advantage over those who don’t know God. In this fallen world, we are able to come to God in prayer, ask for guidance and direction.

If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it. (James 1:5 TLB)

Solomon was on a mission. He was smart, but he was also dumb at the same time. For a while in his life he left the Lord and sought to discover the meaning of life from life itself. He was disappointed; it was a fruitless mission. He became pessimistic. But not totally so:

So I conclude that, first, there is nothing better for a man than to be happy and to enjoy himself as long as he can; and second, that he should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of his labors, for these are gifts from God. And I know this, that whatever God does is final—nothing can be added or taken from it; God’s purpose in this is that man should fear the all-powerful God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12—14 TLB)

The man who seeks satisfaction from the things of this world is never far from frustration; that’s the feeling of verse 12, which is a warped echo of an earlier declaration:

So what does a man get for all his hard work? Days full of sorrow and grief, and restless, bitter nights. It is all utterly ridiculous. (Ecclesiastes 2:22, 23 TLB)

So you can see the treadmill of Solomon’s reasoning; it makes no sense because life made no sense to him apart from God. Still, he sees the hand of God even in his work. Not only that, in a statement of great faith, the Teacher says that there is a permanence to the work of God. Everything changes, except God—whatever He does is final.

This brings us full circle and to verse 15—

Whatever is has been long ago; and whatever is going to be has been before; God brings to pass again what was in the distant past and disappeared. (TLB)

This is a difficult verse to understand and translate and there are different interpretations of it. The first two statements make it clear that the universe doesn’t change. But that final phrase is curious: “God brings to pass again what was in the distant past and disappeared.” What does Solomon mean? Let’s see how other translations handle it:

  • God seeks what was passed by…

  • God seeks what has been driven away…

Now, some scholars see God’s constant care in His orderly running of the universe in these translations. That makes complete sense; our God is a God of order. However, there may be another meaning. When we consider that the Lord put “eternity in the hearts (or minds) of man,” we realize that man has a sense of his impermanence. People instinctively know they won’t live forever; that one day life will come to an end for them. Then what? What if, in the fine print of God’s plan for the universe, He designed it to point man to Himself? God, through His creation, is able to draw “what was passed by” or “what has been driven away” to Himself.

One great reason for our lack of satisfaction lies in this innate sense of the eternity of the inner self, which no earthly things and doings can fully meet.

A Survey of Ecclesiastes 2

Reverence God Always, 5:1—7

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, there are a number of “interludes,” similar to the parenthetical passages in the book of Revelation. In that book, those pauses in the action serve to explain certain things John saw in a previous vision. In Ecclesiastes, the interludes give Solomon an opportunity to review various attempts to find the satisfying and unifying key to life and its purpose. Up to chapter 5, the Teacher has concluded that the only satisfaction comes from accepting God’s plan for one’s life, even if the sum total of that plan is not clear. Life should be marked by acceptance, not by making demands of God. In fact, the one who fears God must continually draw near to God if he is to be sensitive to his will.

1. Watch your step! Keep your mouth shut!, verses 1—3

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. 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.

The KJV renders “guard your steps” as “Keep thy foot.” The emphasis is on the individual to use control and restraint as he approaches God. Perhaps Jesus had these verses in mind when He told the story of the two who went into the temple to pray in Luke 18:9—14. Believers ought to approach God confidently, yet with the right motives. We come before God in humility as we recognize His majesty and His absolute right to our lives.

Far too many Christians approach God with a profusion of words, but without a receptive spirit. That’s what Solomon is hinting at when he writes, “Go near to listen.” As surely as we are able to talk to God, He is able to speak to us. But we need to willing to receive what He is saying to us. It is always better to hear what the Holy Spirit has to say than to be focused on telling God what we want Him to hear. Smith and Goodspeed see in the word “listen” more than merely hearing the words of God, but obeying what God says. Their translation:

To draw near to obey is better than that fools should offer sacrifice.

This notion goes along very well with 1 Samuel 15:22,

But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD ? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

In coming near to God, we seek His guidance as we listen to His words. The alternative to this is to suppose that offerings can be a substitute for a God-ordered life. “The sacrifice of fools” would be any irreverent or insincere approach to God. Moffatt translates the last clause of verse 1 as:

All a fool knows is how to do wrong—even in worship.

Some commentators see this as an attempt to bribe God. See Isaiah 1:11—20. While this is possible, I see two other possibilities:

  • Sometimes it is easier to offer some sort of sacrifice to God than it is to what He tells us. Thus, we make ourselves feel better, thinking He will accept something from us in place of what He wants from us.
  • Sometimes we offer boisterous worship in place of obedience, thinking that will appease Him. We draw His attention to our worship and away from our disobedience, and we think that will make for the deficit in our spiritual lives.

And yet, we are made to communicate to God in prayer. The emphasis in verse 2 is on rashness and haste. A.F. Harper writes:

Respectful silence or reverent and thoughtful prayer is more appropriate than much speaking in patterned liturgical forms.

Early Jewish writing mirror what Solomon has said:

Always let the words of a man before the Holy One (blessed be His name) be few.

True prayer is not reciting a list as quickly as possible so you can get on other things in life. One of the best commentaries on these two verses is what our Lord said in Matthew 6:7—8,

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Verse 3 seems to be by itself, like an isolated proverb. But it is related to verses 1 and 2. How many times have you gone to bed and tossed and turned thinking about the day you just lived through? That’s what happens when your focus is inward, instead of outward. What you think about is what you dream about. Similarly, what is on your mind when you come before the Lord is what you’ll be thinking about, even when you’re praying. That is the prayer of a fool.

2. Keep your vows, or keep your mouth shut!, verses 4—7

When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. 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? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

A vow is really a contract with God; it is a binding commitment made by us to Him, and as Solomon notes, its is dangerous to not keep a promise made to God. The RSV hints that the vow involves money or offerings: “When you vow a vow made to God, do not delay in paying it…Pay what you vow.” This would be in keeping with making excuses to the “temple messenger,” or preacher. However, this verse certainly applies to any kind of promise made to God, at any time. How often have we made a vow to God to do something for Him when we find ourselves in trouble? A vow made at such a time is just as binding as a vow made during a time of prayer.

Vows made to God, if kept, have power to lift us to new levels of devotion and service, but a broken promise to God jeopardizes our standing with Him.

What keeps us from keeping a vow made to God? Very often it is greed or a lack of faith. Yet a vow is much more than just a promise; it is a spiritual bond between man and God. Numbers 30:2–

When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

When we don’t keep our end of the commitment, we offend two parties:

(1) It is disrespectful of and an insult to God.
(2) It is a self-inflicted injury, for God will be recompensed (Acts 5:4).

God is not looking for for vain dreams or lofty words and big promises. He is looking for people to do His will, and that begins with keeping our word to God. Indeed, obedience IS better than sacrifice.


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