WHAT TO DO WHEN IT GOES WRONG
4 If the ruler’s spirit turns against you, do not change your position, because calmness can overcome big mistakes. 5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like a mistake made by that ruler — 6 stupidity is set up in many high places while worthy men sit in humble places. 7 I have seen slaves on horses and princes walking like slaves in the land.
I love the honesty that Solomon expresses here. Gone are the bull feather expressions that are so common today, especially among the religious. He does not say that you can count on things working out OK all the time. Instead, he joins hands with Murphy and warns his sons that unfair stuff is going to happen. The ruler is going to get angry at you, so stay put and work it out. Worthy people are going to not get elected, but stupid ones are.
In a world where Murphy rules, you need wisdom and faithfulness. You need to trust God for justice to come eventually, because it is not always going to work out that way in the here and now. You need faith.
LORD, give us the courage to trust you, even when nothing goes right.
DON’T SPOIL IT ALL
1 Dead flies make even fragrant oil stink, in the same way, a little stupidity is weightier than wisdom and honour. 2 A wise person’s heart goes this way, but the stupid person’s heart goes that way. 3 Even when the stupid one walks along the road his heart is deficient, and it tells his stupidity to everyone.
stupid weighs more
Solomon learned a lot about stupidity. He saw it as a kind of infestation, that spoils everything it touches. He compared it to the dead flies that get into perfumed oil and turn it into a stinking mess. He said you can tell stupid people by how they walk, always taking the wrong path. And the trouble is, stupidity and wisdom do not balance out. Just a little stupidity weighs more than the same amount of wisdom. Those who aspire to live their lives the right way – the wise way – need to be extra careful that they don’t spoil it all with just one wrong turn, one stupid move.
LORD, make us experts at making wise choices, and at avoiding stupid mistakes.
WALK WITH WISDOM
13 I also came across this wise saying under the sun, and it impressed me. 14 There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it, and laid large siege works against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by means of his wisdom. But no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is going to be despised and his words are not heeded. 17 Listening to the words of the wise in quietness is better than listening to the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner can destroy much good.
It is better to be wise than be a fool, because wisdom can help you in a crisis, as it did the city in the story that Solomon liked. But wisdom is also impermanent. It will not last. The wisdom of a poor man is going to be despised, and his words not heeded. People are fickle, and they are just as liable to ignore wisdom as applaud it.
For Solomon, this is a major breakthrough, because he had spent his life in pursuit of wisdom. As an old man, he discovered that even wisdom is not the greatest treasure, because it does not last.
LORD, show us how to get wisdom without endangering our walk toward holiness.
BEING FIRST TO THE TRAP IS NOT THE GOAL
11 I turned to see that the race under this sun does not go to the swift ones, and the battle does not go to the warriors, and neither does bread go to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favour to men of ability; because time and chance overtake them all. 12 Because man does not recognize his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net, and birds trapped in a snare, so the children of men are ensnared by an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them.
We are taught that life is a game, and if you play by the rules and work hard, you will win. Horse feathers! Solomon learned that life seldom works out like that. The warriors fail in battle, and the athletes fail in the arena, and all of us fail unfairly all the time. Really smart people end up unemployed and hungry. We are more like fish caught in a net, or birds caught in a snare. Life sneaks up on us while we are learning the rules and bonks us on the head.
The older and the more truly wise you get, the less you try to figure out the way to succeed, and the less success means to you. Once you get over the middle age panic – if you are mature enough – you realize that the game is not the ultimate thing.
LORD give us the wisdom to stop trying to win, and focus on you and our relationship with you.
ENGAGE, BUT REMEMBER
7 Go on, eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; because God has already shown approval of your works. 8 Let your clothes stay white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; because this is your reward in life, and for your work in which you have done under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your strength; because there is no working or thinking or knowledge or wisdom waiting in Sheol where you are heading.
your reward in life
Solomon is not teaching us that life is futile. He is telling us that it can be wonderful, but also warning us that it does not last. So, he does not advocate withdrawal from life in some kind of self-imposed monastic hermitage. Instead he challenges all of us to engage in life, and if we are fortunate enough to have work, a good marriage, or any of the other benefits of this life, consider it all a reward. Do not ignore those rewards. Enjoy them. Just remember that none of these things are permanent. Enjoy life’s temporary rewards, and also seek a more permanent kingdom.
LORD, give is the good sense to enjoy these few days, and the rewards that they bring. Give us also the wisdom to not turn away from the eternal hope that comes only from a relationship with you.
NO HOPE WITHOUT CHRIST
4 Because whoever is connected with all the living has hope, because a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 Because the living ones are aware of the fact that they will die, but the dead ones are aware of nothing, and they get no more wages, because people forget to even mention their name. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already been erased, and they have no more involvement in all that is done under the sun permanently.
dogs and lions
Solomon had first concluded that it was better to be dead than alive, but then he changed his mind. Now he argues that it is better to be alive, even though it is only temporary. Life means awareness: the dead are not aware of what is happening. Life means the ability to enjoy wages: the dead enjoy nothing. Life means being remembered by others. The dead are eventually forgotten.
His observations of life under the sun have led Solomon to reject all that religious nonsense about survival of death. He recommends enjoying life now because it is a precious gift from God. If there will be any life after this – that also will be a gift from God. Immortality is not a given. It is conditional. The conditions were met by Christ. He is our only hope or resurrection life. Without him, even great lions are just dead animals.
LORD, thank you for Christ, our only hope for eternal life.
DEATH, then WHAT?
1 Because all this I gave to my heart, trying to figure it all out, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether God responds with love or hate, a man cannot know; both are possible with him. 2 It is the same for everyone, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one fares, so fares the sinner, and someone who swears is just like someone who never promises anything. 3 This is an evil that effects everything that is done under the sun, the fact that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of human children are full of evil, and blindness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
the same event
Religions had taught that after death there would be a reckoning, and all evil punished, and all good rewarded. Solomon saw no evidence of that. He was left with the observable fact that death is the same event experienced by both the righteous and the wicked. He saw this a great evil, because it tended to lull the wicked into a false sense of security, and discouraged those who wanted to do well. It tended to create a world where all the children’s hearts were full of evil.
Jesus brought life and immortality to light by promising to raise the dead, and teaching us about the end-time judgment. Without that light, the whole world would be lost in the despair of inevitable death, with no hope for a future. Solomon posed the question. Jesus gave the answer.
LORD, thank you for the hope of a resurrection unto eternal life through Christ when he returns.
LET GOD SORT IT OUT
14 Here’s another example of impermanence reigning in the land: that there are righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and there are wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. I said that this also shows impermanence. 15 And I commend joy, because man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, because this attitude will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. 16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done in the land, how neither day nor night do a person’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot comprehend the work that is done under the sun. However hard a person may work in investigating, he will not figure it out. Even if a wise man claims to know, he cannot comprehend it.
mystery and joy
The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible in general (and conventional wisdom) teaches that if you do what is right, you will be rewarded with a better and longer life. But Solomon points out that this is not always the case. Some deserve judgment and do not get it in this life. Others deserve blessing and do not get it in this life. What happens to people is often a mystery that – like so manty of God’s other activities – remains unsolved. So, Solomon recommends going through life with a good attitude and experiencing joy anyway. Such is the mark of people who are not putting all their hopes in this life.
LORD, keep us every mindful of the mystery of life, and willing to let you sort it all out.
ARE YOU SEEING THE WHOLE PICTURE?
10 Then I noticed what happens when the wicked are buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and had been praised in the city where they had done such things. But that kind of praise is also impermanent. 11 Because judgment against an evil deed is not meted out speedily, the heart of the children of Adam tends to keep doing evil. 12 Even if a sinner does evil a hundred times and lives a long life, I still know that it will be well with those who fear God, because he sees their reverence. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he live a life as long as a shadow, because he does not revere God.
Solomon discusses the problem of the wicked person who lives a long life and is praised by others for his apparent godliness. Why is it better to live with integrity and to truly respect God? Solomon looked longer at the problem than we usually do. He watched the hypocrite die. He saw him buried. Then, he noticed that there was nothing left of his riches and reputation. But even for the poor honest person who lives a short life, there is hope that the God who lives will remember.
LORD, when we are tempted to envy the dishonest and hypocritical, show us how to look a little longer, and see their true end.
DO NOT FLIRT WITH DEATH
7 Because he does not know what is yet to come, who can tell him how it will be? 8 No one rules over his own breath, nor rules over the day of death. There is no discharge from that war, not even wickedness can deliver those whose time is up. 9 All this I realised while thinking about all that is done under the sun, when someone had power over another to his detriment.
those whose time is up
Some think of Ecclesiastes as a justification for throwing away all self-control, and just enjoying life regardless of the consequences. That is a misreading of Solomon. He advocates caution and self-control here. His advice is to enjoy life all you can, but remember that there are a number of things not under your control. Your death and destiny are in someone else’s hands. So do not flirt with death, because wickedness will not save you when your time is up.
LORD, give us the wisdom to make proper decisions which honour you, and to respect the limits that are on our lives.