Mean What You Say, Then Do It (Ecclesiastes 5:1–7)

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One of the great things about being a pastor is the ability to officiate at weddings. Several times every year, I get the opportunity to lead a young couple in vows of lifelong love. Of late, older married couples have begun to ask me to renew their vows as part of the celebration of their fiftieth anniversaries. Presiding over such ceremonies is both a joyous and solemn experience. The joy is self-evident; the solemnity requires some explanation.

Marriage—if the vows are any guide—is a very serious commitment. I ask the bride: “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?” Then I ask the groom the same questions. Later, I ask the husband to say after me: “I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”  Then I ask the bride to repeat those same words. They are promises of unconditional, lifelong love, which are not to be broken.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are as serious about our relationship with God as a bride and groom are about their vows on the day of their wedding. Do we vow to love God “from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death”?  I think some people do, and I think they often follow through on that vow to God. More often, however, I think we take our relationship with God a bit unseriously.

We make bargains with God that we quickly break when he comes through with his part. “Dear Lord, if you help me get this job,” we pray, “I’ll start attending church regularly.” Or, “Heavenly Father, if you help me lose 25 pounds before my high school reunion, I will volunteer to teach Sunday school.” When we get the job and lose the weight, however, we quickly find good excuses for slacking off on our church attendance or filling our weekends with anything other than screaming Sunday schoolers.

Ecclesiastes 5.1–7 warns us about such laziness in keeping our promises to God. Basically, the Preacher’s message is, “If you really love God, shut up. He is not impressed by your endless empty promises.” Instead, what God desires most from us is our silent, rapt attention: “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (5:1). He also desires our simple obedience: “God has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (5:4).

Making promises, taking vows, is a normal human thing, whether we make those promises to one another or to God. But in a day when words are cheap and plentiful, such as ours certainly is, the most spiritual thing to do is to keep silent or at most use words very carefully. Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). In light of all this, I guess my advice to you (and to myself also) is twofold: Mean what you say, and then do it. That is what God requires.

Better Than (Ecclesiastes 4:1–16)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 4.1–16.

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Ecclesiastes 3:22 declares, “there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” We Americans bristle at the notion that we have been assigned some lot in life with which we must simply make do. If we do not like our current situation, we change it. Ours is a country of self-made men and women.

And yet, there are some things that no amount of self-making can undo, such as the facts that everything under the sun eventually goes “Poof!” and that we all die. Admittedly, neither life’s ephemerality nor our personal mortality are pleasant to think about, but they are real, and we must learn to live our lives based on reality. According to the Preacher, the first application of reality to our lives is that we learn to rejoice in our work (3:22). Ecclesiastes 4.1–16 offers four additional applications of reality to our lives, using the formula, “better than.” Let us take a look at each one.

First, the Preacher observes “the tears of the oppressed” and their lack of “comfort” (4:1). Seeing this, the Preacher concludes, “better than both [the living and the dead] is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (4:3). Now, at first glance, this seems like a counsel of despair, that nonexistence is preferable to existence. And yet, as Choon-Leong Seow points out, the Preacher’s counsel is ironic: “The alternative of not having lived is not an option that people can choose. The [better than]-saying thus points to the irony of human existence: what is really ‘better’ in this regard is not within the grasp of mortals…. What is better, then, is not to somehow be shielded from life’s painful realities but, as he intimates in 3:22, to enjoy oneself whenever it is possible to do so.”

Second, the Preacher tells us, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (4:6). In other words, having less is more, when it comes to material possessions, especially if having more makes you crazy. Why? Because the drive to possess more and more stuff often arises from envy of one’s neighbors, which can never been satisfied. The Joneses cannot be kept up with, and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. On the other hand, working hard to possess things—as long as it does not make you anxious—is better than the alternative: Only the “fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh” (4:5), a grotesque image of starvation resulting from laziness.

Third, the Preacher counsels us to get friends: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (4:9). Few blessings in life are as satisfying as heartfelt companionship. Friends help one another when one falls down, keep one another warm when it is cold, and protect one another when one is attacked. Moreover, friendship provides us a motivation to work, for through friendship, we have someone to share the fruit of our labor with.

Finally, then, the Preacher concludes: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (4:13). Wisdom, which the Preacher closely associates with teachability, takes a person far in life. It is through wisdom—moral knowledge practically applied—that men and women become successful and achieve prominence. But it is always better to be wise than successful, moral than powerful. Why? Because even leading people is a thing that goes “Poof!” Wisdom, on the other hand, being an attribute of God himself, lasts forever.

So, we have a lot in life that we cannot improve. Under the sun, all is ephemeral and we are mortal. And yet, within the confines of life under the sun, we can improve our condition if we make the best of what God has given us, use our material possessions sanely, get friends, and above all, acquire wisdom.

Using the Time God Has Given (Ecclesiastes 3:16–22)

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If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then why is the world wracked by so much evil? Surely God knows what is going on down here. Certainly he has the power to change it. And we can be absolutely certain that he desires to do so. That being the case, why do we experience so much suffering and pain? Ecclesiastes 3.16–22 asks and answers this question, but its conclusions are surprising.

The Preacher opens with a simple observation: “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (3:16). There is no substantial difference between justice and righteousness in this verse. By making the same statement twice, the Preacher is simply emphasizing that things are not the way they are supposed to be on planet Earth. Where goodness should be, we see badness instead.

Surprisingly, the Preacher does not speculate on the cause of the world’s moral pollution. Elsewhere, the Bible plainly states that the parlous state of the world is the result of human actions: “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12). But here in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is more interested in how we live a sinful world than in how the world came to be sinful in the first place.

First, he teaches us to live in light of the coming judgment. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter for every work” (3:17). The end-times judgment of us and our deeds is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. Summarizing the biblical evidence, the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ will return from heaven “to judge the living and the dead” (Matthew 25:31–46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12, Revelation 20:11–15).

Although we experience evil at the present time, we know that evil will not hold sway forever. In between that time and now, we must be patient. God has appointed a time to judge the world, but it is not now. Instead, in the present, he invites us to repent of our own wickedness and turn to him for forgiveness. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [to return and judge the world]…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Second, the Preacher reminds us of our humble place in the cosmos: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Do you remember how the Serpent tempted Adam and Eve to sin? He said, “God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The first and perpetual human sin is idolatry, trying to replace the Creator with a creature. From idolatry flow all the injustice, wickedness, and death we see around us. So, for our benefit, the Preacher reminds us that we are just creatures—beasts. Like them, we die. Like them, we do not know what the future holds. By reminding us of our similarity to animals, the Preacher humbles us. Therein lies our salvation: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).

How do we live humbly and mindfully of the coming judgment? The Preacher tells us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (3:22). In one of my favorite classics, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, thinking about the evil that has descended upon his little Shire and the attendant responsibilities thrust into his hands, says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which the wise old Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Today, how do you decide to use the time God has given you?

What Do We Get from Our Toil? (Ecclesiastes 3:9–15)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 3:9-15).


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What gain has the worker from his toil?

Every Monday morning, millions of Americans ask themselves that very question as they once again start their workweek. It is a legitimate question. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, what do we really gain by working hard? A paycheck, a sense of satisfaction at a job well done, a measure of self-esteem, slight changes in the way the world works? These are all good things, but they are not permanent things. They are hebel, “vanity,” things that go “Poof!” At the end of their lives, most people realize that their lives are not more meaningful because they spent extra hours at the office.

Nevertheless, work is a good thing. The Preacher tells us four things about God that apply to our work-a-day lives (Ecclesiastes 3:9–15):

First, work is God’s gift to us. “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (3:10). It is a gracious gift that causes us to spend our time on earth productive, honestly, and in a meaningful fashion.

Second, God has given us work for a good purpose. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Sometimes, when our work frustrates us, we need to remember that it is a thread in the divine tapestry of history. We may not see that beauty at the present moment, when we are tired of toil, but that does not mean the beauty does not exist.

Third, part of the purpose of work is to show us that there is more to life than work. “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). In other words, God gives us work—a hebel, a vanity, a thing that goes “Poof!”—to drive us to himself. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Precisely!

So, fourth, while life lasts, we ought to take pleasure in the work God gives us. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12, 13). Work may frustrate us; it may not be the source of our ultimate happiness—which is God alone—but it can be a penultimate joy.

The Preacher’s theology of work is a healthy tonic for the overworked American soul. I think many of us place far too much value on what we do, looking to work to fill a spiritual void that in reality only God can fill. Is work good? Yes. Is work frustrating? Often. Is that the way God planned it? Absolutely. He uses good, but frustrating, experiences to show us our need for him. He uses the time we spend on earth to direct our thoughts to eternity. Everything under the sun is vanity, the Preacher endlessly reminds us. But God is not. “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever…so that people fear before him” (3:14), i.e., approach him with extreme reverence and awe.

So, what do we workers gain from all our toil? God, if we are paying attention and letting him accomplishes his purposes through our work.

Knowing How to Act, and When (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

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Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Acting on the psalmist’s advice, I have done the math, and it turns out that today—January 25, 2011—I am 15,237 days old. (You can calculate your age in days here.) I entered the world on May 8, 1969, in Springfield, Missouri, seventy-three shorts days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by walking on the moon. I have lived in part or the whole of six decades; seen my nation engage in three major wars and ten presidential elections, which of late have seemed to amount to the same thing; and married the right woman and fathered a healthy son. It has been, so far, a pretty good life.

Reading Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 reminds me that it also has been a very patterned life. I wake up in the morning and go to sleep in the evening. From childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood, school began in the fall and ended in the spring. Now, well into the twentieth year of my professional life, I experience the weekly rhythm of office days and days off. “For everything there is a season,” the Preacher informs us, “and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1).

When we number our days, we get a heart of wisdom because we learn that some activities are appropriate at some times, but not at others. There is, for example, “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (3:2). The death of a loved one gives us “a time to weep,” and a funny joke “a time to laugh” (3:4). Only a fool laughs at funerals and cries at a comedy club, however. Our nation is presently in “a time for war,” even as we look to “a time for peace” (3:8). Only a fool would seek peace when the enemy is at the gate or prosecute a war when the enemy offers surrender. A wise man acts appropriately for the time in which he finds himself.

Not surprisingly, Jesus was a wise man who knew his time. For thirty years, he laid low in Nazareth, a small village in the hills of Galilee. And then, after Herod arrested his cousin John the Baptist, he emerged from obscurity, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Once, when his brothers urged him to precipitously announce himself the Messiah at a religious feast, Jesus said, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:6). Only as he celebrated Passover in Jerusalem, on the eve of his crucifixion, did Jesus inform his disciples, “My time is at hand” (Matthew 26:18). Jesus knew how to act, and just as importantly, when.

A life filled with wisdom will follow Christ’s example, and act in right way at the right moment. Only by learning to do so will we be able to say, with Jane Taylor’s nursery rhyme:

How pleasant it is, at the end of the day,

No follies to have to repent;

But reflect on the past, and be able to say,

That my time has been properly spent.

Toiling Under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 2:18–26)

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Today, I would like you to reflect with the Preacher and me for a few moments on the topic of work. Our text is Ecclesiastes 2:18–26.

What we do for a living is very important to us. For many people, work is central to their identity. It is so central, in fact, that one of the first questions we ask people when we meet them is, “What do you do?”—as if this tells us more about them than their family, education, hobbies, or driving passions in life. In traditional societies, what mattered most was whom you were related to. Did you have an aristocratic pedigree? Were you born into a low caste? Would your clan come to your aid if you found yourself in trouble? In modern societies such as our own, what matters most is what you do with your life, not who your parents are. It is achievement, not ancestry, that counts.

Because of the importance of work in modern societies, then, many people look for psychological fulfillment in what they do for a paycheck. They do not merely want a job that pays well, they want a job that gives their lives meaning. Now, in a wealthy society such as ours, with its complex division of labor, a person who dislikes one form of work can always find another. But in the relatively simple, traditional society in which the Preacher lived, work was considered “toil” (2:18) It was hard, backbreaking labor, and while it may not have been all that fulfilling, at least it paid the bills.

In addition to its toilsome nature, the Preacher highlighted another problem with work. Even if you were quite successful in your endeavors, your successor might be a fool and ruin what you have spent a lifetime building (2:18–19). King Solomon, for example, built Israel into a magnificent kingdom, filled with wisdom, wealth, and power. His idiot son Rehoboam, however, destroyed his legacy by raising taxes and dividing the kingdom (1 Kings 12). Forty years of diligent labor disappeared in an instance. “Poof! Poof! Everything goes poof!” Such is the ephemeral, unreliable nature of work. It is hardly something that you want to build your identity and sense of personal fulfillment on, for who knows what bad decisions will wreck your good ones?

So, should we despise work? Is it meaningless? After what he has written about his toils, you might expect the Preacher to answer both questions affirmatively. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, he writes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw is from the hand of God…” (2:24). Not only does God give us work to do, but he also crowns our labors with success: “to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy” (2:26).

So, as you sit at work today, remember that however toilsome you may find it, your work is a gift from God, and if you do it well, God will bless you. But, by the same token, do not expect too much from what you do for a living. Like all creaturely things, it goes “Poof!” Ground your personal identity and find your sense of ultimate self-fulfillment elsewhere.

In the Long Run (Ecclesiastes 2:12–17)

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There are moments in reading Ecclesiastes when I would like to wring the Preacher’s neck, such as when I read today’s passage (2:12–17). Here is a man who has just confessed to having everything most men want: pleasure, wealth, achievement, fame, and women. And yet, he is still not satisfied. He mopes about with a long face, wearily proclaiming, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”

“Come on, Preacher,” I want to scream; “get over it already!” After all, it seems to me, life—while not perfect—can be pretty good. Think before you act, do the right thing, treat others well, and your life will turn out okay: again, not perfect, but pretty good.

Interestingly, there is a moment in today’s passage when the Preacher seems to get it. He is meditating on a single question: Is wisdom better than folly? Yes! Of course! “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (2:13, 14). The Preacher opened Ecclesiastes with a question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). He gains wisdom, if he pays attention, and wisdom leads to a better life than foolishness does.

And yet…

Right after conceding that wisdom is better than folly, the Preacher says, “And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them” (2:14). What event? Death. “How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2:16). Reading that verse, I am reminded of what the economist John Maynard Keynes once said in response to a question about the long-term consequences of some economic policy. “In the long run,” he said, “we are all dead.”

Now, I know that there are better ways to begin the morning than by thinking about one’s own mortality. And quite frankly, when reading Ecclesiastes, I would not mind a bit more cheerfulness from the Preacher. But the Preacher is right. And Keynes is right. In the long run, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, smart or dumb, we are all dead. We cannot avoid that fate, and it would be utterly foolish to deny that our mortality casts a shadow over everything we do.

So what should we do? The Preacher provides half an answer when he says, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also, that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12, 13). But this is only half the answer. The other half is supplied by a far better Preacher with a far great hope about the life to come: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, 26).

We need to modify Keynes’s quote. In the short-term long run, we are all dead. But in the long-term long run, Jesus Christ offers us the possibility of eternal life, which is neither vanity nor a striving after wind.

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