Whatever your hand finds to do ...

Text Ecclesiastes 9.10-10.11 Time 11/09/05 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We begin with a recap of last week’s message
1. Recognise that life is full of mystery
2. Recognise, however, that we do know two things
1 We know that we will all soon die
2 We know that it is good to be alive
3 Therefore aim to enjoy life despite its emptiness and toil
The next section goes all the way from 9:10-11:6. Tonight we will just focus on 9:10-10:11. You will notice here how Solomon begins to use more and more Proverbs. He produced a whole collection of proverbs and these are not from that collection but are additional to them and appropriate for his purposes here. Three things then
1. Consider this leading principle for life and these balancing considerations
1. Consider this leading principle – the principle of action
Overarching principles can be very helpful. This is what Solomon gives us here – a general rule for life. Verse 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. It doesn’t tell us everything, of course, but when it comes to practical every day living then
1 If a thing is not worth doing well it isn’t worth doing at all. The devil tempts you to, say, commit adultery or to steal. What is his aim? He wants to take you as far in that sin as possible. But we are compromisers. We don’t want to go as far as the devil wants; we just want to think about these things. Forget thinking about adultery, about stealing. Put them behind you.
2 Whatever you do, do you do it with all the zeal and enthusiasm you can muster?
Really pray, really study the Bible, really live it out. That’s how the commandments speak – not love God a little bit but with all your heart and soul, etc. No pussyfooting, no half measures. Nothing lackadaisical. Throw yourself into it.
3 Now is the time
Very soon we’ll be in the grave. There’s no planning, etc, there. Remember the end of Chapter 6 Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? 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? We don’t know how long we will live but it won’t be long. Life goes by so quickly. When we’re young we have all sorts of ambitions but by my age you realise you are, more or less, what you are. 2 Corinthians 9:6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously, John 9:4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.
Is this principle part of your thinking? When you wake up, for example.
2. Consider these three balancing considerations to keep in mind
We need to balance this statement with other considerations
1 God’s sometimes surprising providence
Verse 11 I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. It is tempting to think that the person who does things with all his might is going to be the most successful. However, things are not quite so simple. My father has always had a great love for horse racing. I remember watching it with him when I was young and assuming that the favourite would win. My dad explained how betting works so that you don't get much if the favourite wins. However, the truth is that sometimes the favourite doesn’t win. Remember the story of the hare and the tortoise. It's the same with boxing matches or great battles in history. There have been surprising changes in history when there have been unexpected turnarounds. Life is full of turnarounds. It is one of the things that makes life so interesting. Think for example of Vincent Van Gogh – you know he never sold a painting while he lived and yet his painting snow sell for millions. Have you heard of the Jamaican bobsleigh team? They nearly won Olympic gold! Sometimes the least likely people rise to power – think of Abraham Lincoln born in a log cabin. Time and chance happen to them all – this is not a denial of providence but an assertion of it. There are various ways of understanding this phrase but clearly God is in control of all things. Recently the England soccer team lost to Northern Ireland (ranked 116th in the world) after 78 years without defeat. If we knew that ten in every hundred people we spoke to would be converted, wonderful! But there is no simple formula – pray for an hour a day and revival will come, etc. In 1 Corinthians Paul says I planted the seed …. But God made it grow! Parents say to their children ‘work hard at school and you will do well’ – I understand why they say it but it is not necessarily true. There are plenty of variations.  We live with great mystery.
2 Our general ignorance
Verse 12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. It is not just our ignorance of death. We don’t know when we will die. Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859. I was born May 22, 1959. He died July 7, 1930 – will I live until 2030? I cannot know. Think of fish caught in a net or a bird in a snare. It reminds us of the recent New Orleans disaster and others like it. Hurricanes, floods, acts of terrorism, etc. Everything has changed. The man driving the 31 bus on June 7 2006 couldn’t have known what would happen. Situations can change very quickly. We have to say ‘If it is God’s will …’.
3 The public’s scorn and amnesia
We don’t tend to think of this. Solomon starts on what we expect to be a story of heroism but that’s not what it is about as we see. Verses 13-15 I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. You think to yourself – I wish I’d been that man. No, says Solomon, it wasn’t like that at all. But nobody remembered that poor man. After they’d got over the shock, he was forgotten. A few years passed and people couldn’t even remember his name! Verse 16 So I said, Wisdom is better than strength. But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is a truly great thing, no question – it teaches you what to do as here - but it doesn’t solve every problem. It is no good thinking that if we were wise, all our problems would be over. We are in God’s hands and we must look to him. People’s memories are very short – politicians bank on this. People forget things. Otherwise, we would all be increasingly wise but sadly things are forgotten and wisdom is scorned and despised. ‘Nobody likes a smart Alec’ they say.
2. Further matters to keep in mind for life
Two further points about wisdom’s limitations need to be noted
1. Keep in mind foolishness’s disproportionate influence
9:17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. All around us the world is shouting at us – various media, advertising, etc. It's loud and it's brash. We hear a noise – we are drawn. What’s going on? It is very easy to be drawn after foolishness. But Solomon says don’t listen to the noisy man raging at the front, listen rather to the quiet man at the back, speaking words of wisdom. See (18) Wisdom is better than weapons of war. It’s not a matter of these things. But one sinner destroys much good. He uses a proverb (10:1) As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour. Picture it. The point is not so much that one foolish act can spoil a life of wisdom but rather that one fool or just a few fools can undo all the good that wise men have brought about. Make no mistake – at all levels there is a struggle going on between the wise and the foolish. 10:2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. The right stands for strength. There’s strength in wisdom but the heart of the fool is all in the wrong place. What a mess it makes. Verse 3 Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is. You only have to look at a fool ... – but so often we don’t and we don’t see. So fools can be very influential indeed. No matter how many wise you have, one fool can make a terrible mess – in a company, a government, a family, a church. What a disproportionate impact a fool can have! For example, it is clear from Scripture that homosexuality is wrong. Think how few practice homosexuality and yet how much impact they have. What a disproportionate and unhelpful influence they have.
2. Keep in mind wisdom’s power to strengthen and its limitations
Solomon goes on with an example of wisdom in action. Verse 4 If a ruler’s anger rises against you, you’re in trouble with someone further up the chain do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest. Again we are being called to heavenly wisdom. Wisdom demands diligence, demands that we are faithful, that we press on. We mustn’t panic. As he says, calmness can lay great errors to rest. If we panic every time the truth is under attack we are not going to make much progress. Think of all the things that have been thrown at the gospel – modernism, Marxism, Freudianism. They have come and they have gone. Take Marxism or modern psychiatry. It is so easy to panic – some certainly did. They ran round like headless chickens. We need to stay calm. When people attack, stay calm. However, at the other extreme, we mustn’t become complacent either. Do you know that phrase "nothing has ever changed at Princeton" – it can have a good meaning or a bad one. Verses 5-7 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves. Let’s be faithful but faithfulness isn’t going to solve all our problems. We must be realistic – faithfulness doesn’t guarantee success. What about that statement Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 7 How do you know you will convert your husband …? How realistic Paul is. All sorts of anomalies will exist. When Jesus came think who was in leadership then. A sense of reality is so important. Be soberly faithful and cry out to God. We feel so powerless and frustrated sometimes. We wan t a revolution. But we must stay calm.
3. Final principles of wisdom to keep in mind at all times
1. Keep in mind the need for a balanced approach
In verses 8 and 9 we have a series of activities where a danger is involved. Verses 8, 9 Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. The wise person doesn’t say I’m never going to dig a pit, etc, because it is too dangerous. Rather he recognises that there is danger in these activities and so he takes care. Take spending time with unbelievers as an example. Somehow we need a balance between telling them and not being influenced by them so that we go astray. Or take the need to be praying, reading the Bible, etc, and the need to find time for everything else. What about bringing up children? We need to teach them well without ramming it down their throats. With giving – there is a straight physical element but a spiritual one too.
2. Keep in mind the advantage of thorough preparation
Verse 10 If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success. Do it with all your might, it says, so he hacks and hacks and hacks. He would be wiser to stop and sharpen the axe. Doing it with all your might involves preparation not just rushing into things.
3. Keep in mind the dangers of procrastination
The other side of the coin is here in verse 11 If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer. It's easy to say ‘I’m going to ....’. Think of perpetual students for the ministry for example. That is not good.

Death Certain, Life Good; Enjoy life while it lasts

Text Ecclesiastes 8.16-9.9 Time 04/11/05 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
I want you to imagine two men. Both profess to be Christians.
is a stern fellow, rather grim. He often fasts, never drinks alcohol. He doesn’t believe in spending too much money on clothes and buys all his clothes from Oxfam. His shoes are the cheapest he can find. He indulges in no luxury and is a single man as he believes holy people don’t get married. He is not particularly friendly. Picture him in your mind.
Jack is a relaxed fellow, easy going in manner. He likes his food and drink and has been known to spend a large amount of money on a slap up meal in a good restaurant. He dresses smartly and uses expensive after-shave. He is married with children. He likes to take his wife away for quiet weekends alone from time to time. He often laughs despite the troubles that come into his life from time to time. Picture him in your mind.
Now these are caricatures, of course, not real people but let me ask you, which one do you think is the most holy? Which one would you think is likely to walk closest to God – Joe the grim, fasting, teetotaller bachelor in his Oxfam cast-offs and cheap shoes? Jack the easy going gourmet, wine drinker and father of four in his Italian suit and leather shoes?
Now, of course, we can’t see into men’s hearts and so the question is redundant to some extent. The reason I raise it, however, is because many of us have a sneaking feeling that Joe is more likely to be the holy one and a sneaking suspicion that Joe is really not acting to some extent in the way that a good Christian should. And the question is whether we are right.
Keep that question in mind as we turn to Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:9. This is the first part of the fourth and final main section of this book. The first three main sections are – 1:12-2:26;3:1-5:20 and 6:1-8:15. To summarise
1. True contentment is found in God alone. It is not found in man but in God and so we must look to him for wisdom, knowledge and happiness, refusing to go on any longer in our sins.
2. God wants us to live in a way that is good and proper. It is a satisfying way. Indeed to know how to enjoy life and to be content is a gift of God. Such people are so taken up with God that they have no time to worry about death or such things.
3. Prosperity is not always a good thing nor is adversity necessarily a bad thing. Rather we must avoid running to unwise extremes, thinking too highly of human power or giving up seeking wisdom because it is so difficult. We should recognise the importance of obedience to the powers that be and the good it does while recognising their undoubted weakness. We should also consider both the judgement of God and the unfairness of life now.
He concludes (15) So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.
Now in this final section Solomon doesn’t really open up new arguments but confirms and enlarges upon what has gone before. Here come the practical exhortations.
There are three things here
1. Recognise that life is full of mystery
1. Accept the testimony of a man who knows
Verses 16, 17 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labour on earth - his eyes not seeing sleep day or night - then I saw all that God has done. The idea of having the leisure to study wisdom and to learn about all the things that occupy men here on earth, all that God has done as he puts it here, may sound very attractive to some but for most of us we have neither the time nor the inclination nor for that matter the ability. Now Solomon wasn’t like that. He had the time, he had the inclination and, by the grace of God, he had the mind for the task. He applied his keen mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labour on earth – his ceaseless round of activity. He saw all that God has done.
Do you ever get advice from strangers? People will advise you about all sorts of things quite freely. For example, ‘Don’t bother to pay the congestion charge. They never catch up with you.’ ‘Get your fruit and veg in Kilburn. It’s the cheapest.’ ‘If you go to Wales take an umbrella.’ It’s not wise to take any old piece of advice and assume it’s correct. You have to weigh up who’s giving it. Well, here is the testimony then of a man famed for his wisdom. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived and what he says is here in Holy Scripture. You can take this as Gospel. This testimony is true.
We are not wise but here is a man who was. If we are willing to listen to him then we too can be wise.
2. Despite all his efforts man can’t plumb the mystery of life under the sun
So what does he say? No-one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. ‘It is impossible’ says Solomon ‘to know all that goes on in this earth. Men make many efforts to search out its meaning but it is not possible to learn it.’ All wisdom, however great it is, is incomplete. There is always more to know. Now we don’t like such a thought but it is a fact. We must try our best to understand this world but it will always be beyond us. There are many examples of this. There was a time, I believe, when physics as explained by Isaac Newton was accepted by most scientists. Then along came Albert Einstein and our understanding underwent a paradigm shift. Maybe another will follow in years to come. Or take global warming. It is generally agreed that there is such a thing although there are some who question it. Not everything seems to add up completely. What about dyslexia? Thirty years ago none of us had heard the word, now we have at least some idea of what it is supposed to be. But now people are questioning whether the current thinking is correct. Anyone who claims to understand it all doesn’t really understand it all. If you think you understand the situation in Northern Ireland, they say, then you don’t properly understand it. Similarly, it is so more generally.
3. Though people claim to have plumbed it they lie
Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.
So when a man says ‘I’m an atheist’ you know something is wrong. He doesn’t know everything. So how can he know that God’s existence isn’t one of the things he doesn’t know? People who come along with their cut and dried systems thinking thy can explain everything at a stroke are dangerous people and they should be avoided. There are many cults and false religions around that make huge claims but really they know very little at all. There are many mysteries in life, many things we cannot explain. To deny that is to fly in the face of the truth.
2. Recognise, however, that we do know two things
Having said all that, we do not want to make the mistake of saying we don’t know anything. Agnostics, for example, properly speaking, are those who claim we can’t really know anything. That’s why, they say, you can’t believe in God for sure. But just because we can’t believe things exhaustively doesn’t mean to say that we can’t know them at all. Some of you know me. You don’t know everything about me. But that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t know me. And so we have to accept that none of us, not even Solomon, knows everything. However there are some things we do know nevertheless. So what do we know?
1. We know that we will all soon die
If you are a Christian that is one of the things you know very well. We are all going to die. Let’s put it like this. We know as believers
1 That our lives are in God’s hands
9:1 So I reflected on all this says Solomon and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands. How did we get to be alive? How did we come to have life? Well, it is something that God has given us. It is something he gave and something that he can take away. We are in God’s hands. That is an important thing to know. To imagine that we came to be alive and can go on living as we please is a great mistake. Many fall for it but let none of you do that. Our lives are in God’s hands. Acts 17:28 says For in him we live and move and have our being. Are you aware of that fact?
2 But they are ignorant of the future
We know that we are in God’s hands; however, like everyone else, we do not know the future - but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. Who know what’s round the corner? As the proverb says we do not know what a day may bring. It is all a mystery to us. We can’t even be sure, despite all our sophistication, what the weather will be like next Tuesday. In truth, we don’t even know if we’ll be alive next Tuesday. Do you think often of that fact?
3. Yet they do know that death is man’s common destiny
Verse 2 All share a common destiny - the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, there are two things in this life you can’t escape – death and taxes! Now it’s very obvious, I know, but it’s surprising how many people live regardless of this obvious brute fact. There is no way around it. We will all die one day. We must never forget that that’s where we’re all heading – to the grave. Death awaits us all. Indeed, even now it is on the road.
4 This is the evil in life under the sun
9:3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. No matter who you are, you will die. The rich die as well as the poor, the young as well as the old, the good as well as the bad. It’s no good thinking you can somehow save yourself by being good. It doesn’t work like that. He says
  • While they live men’s hearts are filled with madness and evil. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live. This point has been made before. We are born corrupt. We are full of evil and not just evil but madness. This is how we live our lives. Evil? You only have to think of the terrorists and suicide bombers, the looters and rapists down in New Orleans. And isn’t it madness too? If you want to know about madness there is plenty of evidence. For example, I was in Aberystwyth recently and on the way to church someone pointed out to me where a drunk student had fallen onto railings and died. On July 15, 1999, in Alabama, a drunk hurled himself out of a high window in a spitting contest. (Cf Darwin Awards 1 - 180 bizarre and true stories of how dumb humans have met their maker). Take people in Lima, Peru who believe that the Titicaca frog (an endangered species) is an aphrodisiac. They put them in a juicer and drink the liquid! Half of the things reported in our newspapers reveal some sort of madness or other.
  • Then they die and afterwards they join the dead. Some die sooner than others because of their stupidity. Take the example of Carol and Mark, who in April 1999, in Washington DC died from laughing gas (nitrous oxide). They were intelligent people (a fire department worker and a medical technician) but they were fools. Some last longer than these, of course, but all die in the end.
2. We know that it is good to be alive.
Verse 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope - even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! This is not a denial of the joys of heaven but a realisation that, all other things being equal, it is best that we live long lives. Certainly under the sun it is better to be alive than to be dead. What can the dead do? Do they make good fathers and mothers? No. Given the choice wouldn’t you want to see your children grow up. In nearly every case you’d want a person to go on living as long as possible. It is good to be alive.
Here are some reasons
1 The living know some things, the dead know nothing. Verse 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. Again this is an under the sun perspective but you can see the point I’m sure.
2 Unlike the living, the dead go unrewarded and are often forgotten. They have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. I know that you do sometimes get posthumous awards and medals but those are really for the person’s family. When they give out Oscars and so on although they occasionally will have someone who has just died honoured they look to the living. The film people never say what about Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy let’s award them this year. No, they look for someone living to award. Put it this way - who are the best preachers you’ve ever heard? Aren’t they ones that have been alive?!! Spurgeon was a great preacher in his day. We could, I suppose, exhume the bones and have him back here but we won’t get much of a sermon from him. I make no boast when I say that I could preach a better sermon than Spurgeon tonight!! Worse than that, as we’ve observed before, people are often forgotten when they die. There must have been fine preachers in Spurgeon’s day but do you know any of their names? Moody? The Bonars? Mostly they are forgotten. Ask that  we will be given a few years more. Remember my question about the names of your great grandparents?
3. This Life is fleeting and death is final
Verse 6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. How brief life is, how fleeting. It doesn’t last long. So quickly it is passed. "Time like an ever rolling stream …." Once you are dead, you play no active part in life here on earth. It’s finished. It’s over. A great runner, a great singer, a great boxer – once they are dead they are useless.
3. Therefore aim to enjoy life despite its emptiness and toil
So we come to Solomon’s conclusion in the light of all this. It may surprise you but it is only what he has suggested already.
1. Enjoy this time of God’s favour
7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours what you do. To be alive is to be favoured by God. It is not something that lasts long. It is soon over and it is right that we should enjoy it while we can. Food and drink are to be enjoined. We mustn’t be greedy, of course, and we must take care not to shorten our lives by over indulgence but food and drink is to be enjoyed. There may be times when we feel we ought to fast in order to draw near to God but fasting is not a big feature of true religion. It is much more about happy times around the table in fellowship. APP Recognise that this is the time of God’s favour. Thank him for it. Enjoy life while it lasts. Banish all thought of suicide or of wanting to die
2. Enjoy these God-given days
Verse 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. White was only worn by those rich enough to be sure they would not get their clothing dirty. Oil was used as lotion or like after-shave or perfume. Verse 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless (empty) life that God has given you under the sun. Some believers have had a low view of sex and marriage. That is quite unbiblical. Yes, some are called to singleness for various reasons including the kingdom. The norm, however, is for believers, to be married or at least to be willing to be married. The thing to remember is that life is God given – it is a gift from him. It is to be enjoyed. Death is ahead, yes, and after that the judgement but now we are alive, we must make the most of it. Are you dong that? Are you seeking to live life to the full? We ought to be very positive about life. It is a gift from God.
3. Enjoy life in spite of the emptiness and toil there is
He ends - all your meaningless (empty) days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. That is important. Solomon hasn’t forgotten how hard life can be. There is a fallenness, a fleeting quality about life that means it is hard to grasp. There is plenty of toil too. Oh how hard some things are! How pressing! Yet life itself is good. Jonathan Edwards once surmised (and I think correctly) that the reason most people don’t commit suicide is because in the end life is good. And it is good to be alive isn’t it? The simplest things can bring so much pleasure? The sunrise, the sunset, the rain, snow, the smell of new mown hay, a pint of cold beer, the music of the flute or the trumpet, flowers, trees, birds singing, a wedding, a honeymoon, a life together, your best friend calling, Sunday tea, etc. To be a Christian is not to deny any of those things but rather to see them as a gift of God and to enjoy them, conscious of his goodness. May God help us then to have the right perspective on all these things. Yes, there must be a willingness to deny ourselves certain things if we are going to live the Christian life. But we do not deny ourselves because it is wrong to enjoy life but because we are looking higher – above the sun, to God himself.
So what about Joe and Jack? I think you know what I’m saying.