Looking at life with discernment

Text Ecclesiastes 6:1-7:15 Time 26/06/05 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We are looking at Ecclesiastes and I have suggested to you that the book can be divided into four parts. We have already looked at the first two parts and we begin this week to the third section, which is found in Ecclesiastes 6:1-8:15. This is the central part of the whole book and builds on what we has already been established in the opening two sections.
So let me remind you of these two things.
1. Realise that true contentment is found in God alone (2:24-26)
1A. True contentment is not found in man. Man has no good in him that he should eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.
2. True contentment is found in God alone.
He goes on This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 3. So look to God for wisdom, knowledge and happiness
Verse 26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness
4. And take warning if you go on in your sins
The final phrase is by way of warning, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God
2. Remember how to live your life (5:18-20)
Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
There are three points here, points similar to those already made in the first section.
1. God wants us to live in a way that is good and proper. It is way that is satisfying.
2. Indeed it is God’s gift to know how to enjoy life and to be content.
3. Such a man is so taken up with God that he has no time to worry about death or such things.
You will find the conclusion of the third section in 8:15. So I commend the enjoyment of life, that is if you fear God, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun. Satisfaction is guaranteed.
First, today, we will look at 6:1-7:15. Here we see that despite the apparent inequalities in life a closer inspection of what actually happens shows things to be a little more complicated. There are really two things to be observed.
1. Recognise that prosperity is not always a good thing
You know the sayings ‘Not all that glisters if gold’ ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. There is a tendency to forget such wisdom at times and so people assume, for example, that provided they have lots of money in the bank or they are famous or healthy or clever then everything else will automatically fall into place. Not so. And so he makes some four points here.
1. Wealth and honour do not guarantee enjoyment
Verses 1 and 2 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honour, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
We could put it this way ‘You may have your cake but not eat it’. For various reasons a man may grow very rich and be highly honoured yet not reap the benefit of his wealth. He may die or be very ill or lose his fortune suddenly. He may simply be a miser unwilling to spend his money. The point is that God sometimes does not allow a man to enjoy the wealth he gives him. Wealth and enjoying it are two different things. There are plenty of rich unhappy people about. Don’t forget that.
2. Earthly advantages are worthless without enjoyment
He stresses the point in verse 3 A man may have a hundred children (gross hyperbole) and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial (no-one mourns him or misses him) I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
The contrast may seem overdone but think of it.
Verses 4-6 It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man - even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place? All die, all go to the grave - the stillborn baby, the man who lives more than twice as long as Methuselah. If your life is going to be miserable, the shorter the better. Again, what good is the longest life if it is not an enjoyable one? Who would want that?
3. Man’s unaided effort can bring him no satisfaction
He then says that (7) All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. He lives (under the sun) only to satisfy his appetites. Isn’t that the nature of life as we have already observed? As Moses and Jesus says Man cannot live only on bread. Therefore (8) What advantage has a wise man over a fool? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others? If your wisdom brings you no satisfaction what good is it? You may know your manners and what people expect but if you are still in poverty what good is it? Verse 9 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. People tend to think that what they really need is more money, more things, an easier life. In fact what we need is contentment with what we have. Better to be content with what you have than to be longing for something different. How empty; what a mere chasing after the wind to think money or possessions or fame can bring contentment. Again and again you hear people who have achieved things saying how it did not satisfy. It is like salt on food – you know that the more you use, the more you need. Or think, to some extent, of filling your stomach – the more you eat the more you need to eat.
4. God is in control of all things and we must look to him
So why can’t we find satisfaction in earthly things? This is how God has made the world. Many people think earthly satisfaction is possible. It’s just that they haven’t found out how yet. But (10) Whatever exists has already been named, (it has all been gone into) and what man is has been known; (that doesn’t change) further, no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. God is the one who reigns. It’s no good trying to fight against him and the way he has made things. Verse 11 The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? People come up with their theories, with their ideas, but it’s just talk. And so he asks (12) For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone? The truth is that no man knows. These things are hidden with God. We need something for every day, for all our lives, all our brief and meaningless/empty days. We need something that will last into the life to come. That is found only in God.
Remember what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:6-9
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
2. Recognise that trouble and hardship are not necessarily a bad thing
The other side of this coin is in 7:1-15. On one hand, many people can’t understand why having reached the top or having all they ever desired, they are still not happy. On the other hand, there are things that would seem to be bound not to lead to happiness and yet they often do.
1. Discerning what is best is not always a simple matter
The proverbs in verses 1-10 of Chapter 7 show that finding happiness in this life is not simply a matter of money, possessions and the conventional things that are supposed to bring contentment. Ask yourself
Which is better?
1 A good name or fine perfume?
A good name is better than fine perfume. Fair fame is better than fine perfume. Better a good name than good nard. People will pay extraordinary amounts for Chanel No 5 or other good perfume. Yet which would you prefer to have fine perfume or a good reputation. What point is there in smelling good but having a name that stinks?
2. The day of death or the day of birth?
and the day of death better than the day of birth. Instinctively you want to say birth but think what lies ahead. Surely there is something about completing life that is better than the beginning? It is at least debatable.
3. A funeral or a wedding?
Verse 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 every man; the living should take this to heart. This is more obvious, perhaps. A funeral leads to soberness, seriousness, careful thought. That can only be good for us.
4. Sorrow or laughter?
More generally (3, 4) Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. Haven’t you noticed how often those who have been through struggles and troubles have something about them that you do not find in those who have not? Some are so superficial and silly they have little to say of any worth.
5. A rebuke or a song?
Here is a teenager listening to music when his mother tells him to go and read.
Verses 5, 6 It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless. It is not nice to be told off. Rebukes are unpleasant at the time. Much better to listen to songs. Yet what good do songs do? When you hear the laughter of fools, think of the crackling of thorns as they burn, boiling up the cauldron of evil.
6. Speed or justice?
Verse 7 Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart. It is difficult to fit this verse in but may be the contrast is between the quick way to a verdict or a decision and the honest way. Money can get things done but think what it can do to a man, to a society when it dictates.
7. The end or the beginning?
Verse 8a The end of a matter is better than its beginning. We don’t always feel like this and we cannot absolutise a proverb but generally it is the end that is best as we have suggested - the end of a project, a life, a sermon (!), etc.
8. Patience or pride?
Verse 8b and patience is better than pride. It is followed by advice (9) Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
9. The past or the present?
This is a catch question for there is no point in asking this – our decision makes no difference to us. Verse 10 Do not say, Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions. Again, we must not absolute this proverb - we can learn from the past but it is no good getting frustrated.
2. Recognise the importance of wisdom
Now you may find some of that difficult to follow or difficult to accept. You need wisdom from God. Verses 11, 12 say Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor. That is what you need rather than wealth or possessions or a new situation. So how can I be wise?
3. Look to God in everything and understand
Verse 13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? Think of examples such as illness, disasters, other things going wrong, etc. I was disappointed when we had the baptism last week that my unconverted niece didn't come across with the rest of the family. I'd hoped it would be something God might use to bring her to himself. Patient acceptance is vital.*
Hear this excellent piece of practical advice in verse 14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Finally remember this (15) In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. If that is a problem to you, you need to hear what I am saying. You are assuming a long life is a good life, a short one a bad one. But think of short lives that have done so much good (in the 19th century, Henry Martyn the missionary to India and Robert Murray M’Cheyne the Scots preacher and in the fifties Jim Elliot the martyred missionary to Ecuador) and then long ones that have been evil. Still you think to yourself "why?" We are not going to solve all mysteries in this life, in this life. It is certainly much more complicated than some would have us believe. What Paul says in Philippians 4:11, 12 is something for us to seek to emulate - I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
* Nice sequel. Two and a half years later she was baptised, having been converted in the summer of 2012.

How to come to God and live your life

Text Ecclesiastes 5:1-20 Time 26/06/05 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We want to turn this evening to the last section of the second part of the Book of Ecclesiastes. This is found in Ecclesiastes 5. Already we have looked at Chapters 3 and 4 in this second section and we have said a number of things. Firstly we said
1. Look around and see that God is in control of all that happens – birth, death, and everything between
2. Look within and see that God has put eternity there. See that what we have has been given to us by God who makes it all beautiful in its time and that he has linked it all to eternity
3. Look forward and see that despite the monotony God will bring it all to account. There will be a judgement day
Meanwhile we have to face up to the reality of life in the raw. Christians are sometimes accused of sticking their heads in the sands and ducking out of reality but we are never encouraged to do that in Scripture. No, we are encouraged here to face up to
1. The way justice seems often to be denied and the courts perverted
2. The way that a man’s life can sometimes seem no different to that of an animal
3. The existence of oppressors and oppressed
4. The existence of envy and greed
5. The existence of loneliness and sadness
6. The way public opinion is so very unpredictable
Now in Chapter 5 we come to the conclusion of this particular section. Solomon wants us to come into the very presence of God as we think these things through. What he has to say is couched very much in Old Testament terms but what he has to say is very relevant to our own day and age.
1. How to come to God
Solomon speaks firstly about how to come to God. He gives us some rules about how to come in to the presence of the Lord. First he gives us a general rule and then some thing more specific.
1. The general rule - take care. He begins (1) Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. When you go to the Temple watch your step. You need to be very careful. Today we do not go to a temple but we are called upon to worship God and whenever we contemplate praying or reading the Bible or coming to church, etc, then we need to be alert and ready to take care. What an awesome thing it is to come into the presence of God. Are you remembering that? We can become lackadaisical about the way we come to payer or reading the Bible or how we come to church – we arrive late, we are not dressed appropriately, we have not prepared ourselves. Rather we ought tot take care over every aspect of our wosrship.
2. The first specific lesson - Be quick to listen. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. It is very easy to go through the motions, to do the right thing but not to have your heart in it. We do not offer sacrifices as such today but there is the giving of money and time and of praise and prayer and good deeds. There is a danger of being so full of eagerness to do these things that we forget that the chief thing is to come near to listen – to hear God speak to us. To hear of course means to obey. Real listening is, of course, a listening that leads to obedience. This is the focus of worship then listening, ready to obey.
3. Be slow to speak. This really underlines the point. Verse 2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. Too often we are too quick and too ready to make promises and vows, to say our prayers and sing our hymns. Rather we must be slow to speak. Take time. Slow down. Think! For example, God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Is it right that what we say should take the lion’s share of what goes on? Rather shouldn’t we be waiting to hear what God says? That is one reason why we give so much time in our meetings to the sermon rather than to singing and so on. We need to turn our thoughts from ourselves to him. Away from us and on to him.
4. A concluding observation. Verse 3 As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. Generally speaking, when a person has a lot on his mind it is no surprise that he dreams. We have all experienced the phenomenon. In a similar way, generally speaking, the more words we use, the more likely it is that what we say will be foolish. This is true in general but especially true when it comes to worshipping God. That is why we must take care and avoid saying too much.
2. How to commit yourself to God
1. The first lesson – don’t delay to do what you promise to do. Verse 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. We are under no obligation to make any promises to God but if we do, we must see that they are kept and that speedily. There can be no delay. If you promise to give so much to God’s work then do it straightaway. If you promise to spend a certain amount of time doing something in the Lord’s service then you must do what you promised to do. There is no getting out of it. You may have just been trying to impress people but if you vow then you must act on it. Are there incompleted vows to God in your life? They must be fulfilled. They cannot be neglected longer.
2. The second lesson – do not try to get out of something you have promised to do. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfil it. Think of what we read in Acts 5. We don’t have to make vows, remember. 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? It provokes God’s anger when we act in this way.
3. A concluding observation. Verse 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God. Just as we have many dreams when we are not sleeping well so there can be many words including rash vows, when we fail to think straight and so fail to stand in awe of God. This leads us back into the question of what we are to make of all these difficulties that seem to undercut the idea that God is in control of everything. If we fear God, if we remember his awesome presence then all will be well.
3. How to view injustice, wealth and toil
1. Consider injustice and its partial remedy
He goes back first to the matter of injustice. He says (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. This is how it is in this world – even in a well-ordered kingdom such as Solomon’s. ‘Don’t be surprised’ says Solomon. That does not mean that it does not matter. However, we need to keep things in perspective. Rather than breaking out against such corruption we need to think things through. Verse 9 is difficult to translate. The NIV (1984) has The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields. This could sound like a further description of the problem but is probably a statement of its solution.
1 Yes, there is injustice but in most cases people realise that they are all dependent on the increase from the land and so if profits are shut up to one small group of people there is a problem. We all need one another’s help. Pray for such a realisation. Order is better than anarchy.
2 If there is good leadership at the top, others will realise that they too are dependent on what is produced in the fields and cannot just live as they please. Pray for that realisation. Good leadership is better than anarchy. From verse 10 Solomon returns to the matter of wealth and possessions. He makes a number of points.
2. Remember that wealth cannot satisfy
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.
The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil yet how common it is. Do you love money or wealth or possessions? Beware – you will never have enough of it. You will never be satisfied however much of it you have. It is simply not able to satisfy your soul.
3. Remember that wealth cannot solve your problems
Many people think it can – that’s why they do the national lottery, for example. Verse 11 As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? The more goods you have, the more friends and hangers on you will find ready to help you use them. Yet what use are all those goods in the end except to feast your eyes on?
4. Remember that wealth cannot give you peace of mind
Verse 12 The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. The rich man is kept awake by too much good food or by worries about his wealth, etc.
5. Remember that wealth cannot provide security
Verses 13 and 14 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him. There are many ways of wasting wealth. Some just fail to use it to any good purpose. Others invest with great care but then lose it all by some ‘accident’, some misfortune. There is nothing left for the next generation.
6. Remember that wealth cannot last
Verse 15 Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand. We must never forget this fundamental truth.
7. Remember that wealth cannot save you
Verses 16, 17 This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.
4. How to live your life
And so we come again to Solomon’s second conclusion. Verses 18-20 Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
There are thre main points here, points similar to those already made in the first section.
1. God wants us to live in a way that is good and proper. It is way that is satisfying.
2. Indeed it is God’s gift to know how to enjoy life and to be content.
3. Such a man is so taken up with God that he has no time to worry about death or such things.

Facing up to Life's Apparent Unfairness

Text Ecclesiastes 3:1-16-4:16 Time 19/06/2005 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We are looking at the second of four sections that make up the Book of Ecclesiastes. This second section is in Chapters 3, 4 and 5. We have already pointed out that the terminus is in 5:18-20. Let’s read those words again:
Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.
So he is making three points here, points similar to those already made in the first section.
1. God wants us to live in a way that is good and proper. It is way that is satisfying
2. Indeed it is God’s gift to know how to enjoy life and to be content
3. Such a man is so taken up with God that he has no time to worry about death or such things
Last week we looked at 3:1-15 and we made three points
1. Look around and see that God is in control of all that happens
2. Look within and see that God has put eternity there. See that what we have has been given to us by God who makes it all beautiful in its time and that he has linked it all to eternity
3. Look forward and see that despite the monotony God will bring it all to account
In the next part of this second section, in 3:16 to 4:16, Solomon talks about six aspects of life on earth that may appear to fly in the face of this whole idea that God is in control of all that happens, has placed eternity in our hearts and is going to bring all things to account in due time. We can pick out these six sections by the presence of the phrases - And I saw, then a second section ending with So I saw, Again I looked and saw, And I saw, Again I saw something and a final section. Notice, as well, the word better in verses 22, 3, 9 and 16. Solomon is unwilling to pretend that these problems do not exist and attempt simply to slide over them. Rather he confronts them head on and so must we. And so we say
1. Face up to the way justice seems often to be denied and the courts perverted
Verse 16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgement - wickedness was there, in the place of justice - wickedness was there. Even in a well run kingdom like Solomon’s injustice and wickedness were to be found even in the place of judgement and justice – in the courts of the land and the meetings of the elders at the city gates. We know it exists in our day too. There are corrupt policemen and magistrates, lawyers and judges and other court officials willing to pervert justice at a consideration. We are na├»ve and short-sighted if we do not think such things go on – not just in places like the Iraq of a Saddam or the Zimbabwe of a Robert Mugabe. These things go on in our courts and in the European courts and in America too. When we see it happening it is very discouraging and demoralising. Criminals get away with murder while the innocent are deprived of justice. What’s the point, we feel. Why bother even trying to maintain any sort of justice? But no, this is the answer, the one that Solomon gives in verse 17 I thought in my heart, God will bring to judgement both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed. It follows on from verse 15. In the New Testament this is fleshed out for us a bit and we learn that Jesus himself is going to be the judge of all, assisted in some inconceivable way by his people. Whenever we come across injustice of any sort we should do what we can to oppose it but we must remember too that the Jude of all the earth will do right.
2. Face up to the way that a man’s life can sometimes seem no different to that of an animal Solomon goes on in verses 18-22 to speak about the way that at times a man’s life can seem no different to that of an animal. What is all this talk of eternity in his heart? These verses are often misunderstood. Solomon is not saying ‘This is how it is’ but ‘This is how people often think. Verse 18 is important I also thought, As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. He makes three points of comparison
1 How alike death is in animals and men. Verse 19 Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. Chickens and cows get diseases and die - so do men and women and children. Dogs and rabbits get run over by cars – so do men and women and children. Pigs and lambs get slaughtered for meat – that rarely happens to people but sometimes when there is death in war on a large scale it seems no different. If you shoot a lion in the heart with a gun it will die – so will a man. Kittens can be drowned and babies too.
2 How alike they are in life too. When you think especially of mammals there seems to be no great difference in some ways All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Then follows his stock phrase Everything is meaningless. Man and animal alike - we’ve all been cursed.
3. How alike their eternal destiny seems to be. Then he pushes it even further in verses 20 and 21 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? Sometimes you’ll see a gravestone for a dog. Perhaps you have been to a little funeral in the garden for a rabbit or a guinea pig. You have also been or perhaps will go to funerals for relatives and friends. You bury goldfish and budgies, as we say, "at sea". People are buried at sea too, sometimes. Now the Bible is pretty clear I think that when an animal dies that is it. There is no life beyond the grave. When a hamster dies you buy a new one. I know sometimes children say that it is not the same but it is they who have changed not the hamster. They may look different but one hamster is pretty much the same as any other. The same for dogs, although years of breeding and the impact that an owner can have makes it seem as though a dog has a personality, a soul even. What ever soul/spirit they have is essentially material. Animals are quite different to human beings. We have, each of us, not just genes and brains but immortal souls, and when we die, yes, our bodies which are made from dust return to dust but our souls go to God to be judged. Yet if you ask people about it they seem to be unsure. As Solomon says Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? Not meaning ‘I don’t know and who can know?’ but ‘It’s a fact but how few people know it’. Many people then as now lived as though there were no difference between being an animal and being a human being. Who knows that the spirit of man rises upward and that the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? Ignorance abounds. He gives a conclusion (22) So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. Again this is emphasised. There is more to man than just eating and drinking, a lot more. But, he asks again, For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? So few are willing to look beyond this life and beyond death to the world to come. Is that you? Are you failing to look ahead?
Then as we come into Chapter 4 he raises some more issues.
3. Face up to the existence of oppressors and oppressed
If you never read newspapers or watch TV and if you don’t use the Internet, you may be able to lock yourself away in a world where all seems cosy and easy. If you open your eyes, however, you will become painfully aware that this is a world of oppression and tyranny. In schools there is bullying – far more than most people realise. In work places, in government and even in families and churches it goes on. In many places there is oppression and cruelty, despotism and repression. And so Solomon says Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed - and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors - and they have no comforter. What a miserable world this is in many ways! We cannot deny the fact. In some ways it is so bad that people would rather be dead than suffer as they do. Hence some of the suicides we read about in our newspapers and the other strange behaviour we sometimes hear of. Hence verses 2 and 3 of Chapter 4 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. ‘Ah’ you say ‘how terrible, people shouldn’t think like that.’ I is easy to say that when we have it so easy. It is not on for us simply to condemn people who think such thoughts when we do not know what they are suffering. However, this does not mean that God is not in control or that oppression will go on forever. No-one will get away with it forever. There will be a day of reckoning. Vengeance is mine says the Lord.
4. Face up to the existence of envy and greed
Then think of the whole rat race that so many are caught up in. ‘It’s a jungle out there’ people will tell you. ‘It’s dog eat dog’. It doesn’t matter what arena you choose – sport, education, politics, business, banking, even in religion. It’s every man for himself and no holds barred. Why is it so competitive, so aggressive, so hostile, so mean and unfriendly? Verse 4 And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour. It is an overstatement, of course, but it highlights a major problem. Without that spirit of envy what might happen? Now I know people will tell you that competition is good and there is an element of truth in that. How sad ultimately though that most children will do better given a little competition and the way that so many of us respond to rivalry, friendly or otherwise. Again - This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Of course, some drop out of the rat race. They refuse to play by the laws of the jungle. But generally these are lazy fools who are no better. Look at verse 5 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Solomon is not condemning hard work. Far from it. Rather he is saying (6) Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. All that effort to no end. Are you in danger of ling like that? Watch out!
5. Face up to the existence of loneliness and sadness
Verses 7, 8 Again he says I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. For whom am I toiling, he asked, and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment? What a sad, sad picture. And there are other stories like it. This too is meaningless - a miserable business!
This leads into a little excursus on the joy of fellowship. Solomon can’t resist something positive. What a wonderful passage it is in verses 9-12 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no-one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Think of marriage, of friendship, fellowship in church or int the community, even in the state. Again, the existence of loneliness and sadness does not undermine the truth that God is in control and the positive side shows God’s goodness and love.
6. Face up to the existence of the unpredictability of public opinion
Finally, verses 13-16 Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. He begins with a proverb (13). The youth rises to kingship on a wave of popular acclaim and ousts the old king. Yet he too or his sons can lose favour. He is talking about how fickle public opinion is. You can go from hero to zero in moments it seems. Perhaps we are more aware of that thannany society before. He concludes This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. So easily such thoughts discourage and depress. Yet again it is not the whole story as we will see in Chapter 5. Those in power try to hold on to it, others clamour for change. We are in God’s hands. Enjoy life, be balanced and look to the Lord’s provision.