No Duh! (Ecclesiastes 10:8–15)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 10:8–15.

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Much of the Bible, and most of its so-called “wisdom literature,” is common sense. Wisdom literature—a few Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, James—is known for its simplicity and practicality. When you read it, you are more apt to say, “No duh!” than you are to say, “Huh, I never thought of that.” The genius of wisdom literature lies in its ability to remind us of truths that we already know—or should know—and to encourage us to take appropriate action.

Take, for example, the little proverbs the Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 10:8–15. The first two concern the risks that are inherent in even the simplest human endeavors: You might fall into a pit you have just dug, or encounter dangerous creatures in a home you have just demolished, or be harmed by quarried stone or flying wood chips. The Preacher’s point is not that we should refrain from all activity, lest we experience harm, but that we should safeguard ourselves from harm, to the degree that we can plan for safety.

Or take the proverb about the blunt iron. One time, while I was out on a date at a really nice restaurant, I began to cut into my filet mignon, but did not make any progress. I thought that either my meat was too tough or my knife too dull until I realized that I was sawing away with the wrong side of the blade. Funny how that works! If you want to cut something efficiently, use the serrated side. The Preacher’s point is simple: Work smart, for if you work dumb, you’ll end up working more. This is also the point about the fool’s toil, which is in vain, because he doesn’t know in which direction he is heading.

Then there’s the Preacher’s little gem about snake charming: “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” No duh, Preacher Man! But how many times have you and I turned in work that was inadequately researched or poorly thought through or badly presented? A wise person knows when the work is done. Fools, on the other hand, rush in where angels fear to tread.

Speaking of fools, there is nothing that reveals a fool more than speaking. Keep quiet and be thought a fool, runs the adage; open your mouth and remove all doubt. That is the spirit of the Preacher’s proverbs about words. A wise person is known for clear thinking and speaking the right word at the right time. The mouth of a fool is like Denny’s, however; it’s open 24/7. “A fool multiplies words.” A wise person subtracts them.

So, have you learned anything new from the Preacher today? Probably—hopefully—not! But have you been reminded of some common sense ideas that you need to put into practice? I hope so. I certainly have.

A Little Idiocy Goes a Long Way (Ecclesiastes 10:1–7)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 10:1–7.

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As a pastor, I work hard to keep politics out of the pulpit. Of course, like most Americans, I have more than my fair share of strong opinions about what happens in my state capital and Washington DC, but it’s wrong for me—or any other pastor—to use my church position as a platform for launching partisan rants at you. Politics is neither my vocation nor my area of expertise. Now, don’t worry, I do not intend to rant today, either, but I want to use a political example from a few years ago without implying some hidden partisan intent. So, here goes.

Bill Clinton could have been a great president. I say “could have been” because, despite the overall peace and prosperity our nation experienced during his administration, President Clinton will always be remembered for his affair with Monica Lewinsky which, in the fullness of time, led to his impeachment and contributed to the general lassitude of his final two years in office.

A little idiocy, you see, goes a long way. Or, as the Preacher puts it, “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench.”

The Preacher offers several examples of how fools destroy themselves through folly. “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.” In almost all traditional societies, the right hand is the hand of power, authority, and majesty. On the other hand—pardon the pun—the left is the hand of weakness, submission, and disgrace. In Latin, the right hand is dextra, from which we get the words dexterity and ambidextrous. The left hand, however, is sinistra, from which we get the word sinister. A fool always acts a bit suspiciously.

A fool is also self-evident: “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense.” If that weren’t enough, when he opens his mouth, he removes all doubt that he’s an idiot: “he says to everyone that he is a fool.”

Unfortunately, a small folly casts a long, disproportionate shadow. In the hands of a politician, foolishness destroys opportunity and elevates the undeserving to places of influence. “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.” Foolishness inverts the moral order of things, elevating the bad and bringing low the good. And when that happens in government, only the people suffer.

So, what should you do when a little idiocy is making its rounds? Stay clam. “If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.” The ruler’s anger that the Preacher speaks of is not righteous anger at an injustice, but rather the hotheaded rage of a stupid leader. When everyone around you is losing his head, the better part of wisdom dictates that you work hard to keep yours.

You see, a little idiocy goes a long way, but wisdom patiently waits it out.

Auto Mechanics in Hell (Ecclesiastes 9:11–18)

You can watch today’s Daily Word by clicking on the image below. But first, please read Ecclesiastes 9:11-18.

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One of the best books in my library is a little collection of proverbs by Peter Kreeft entitled A Turn of the Clock. Do you want some samples? Under the title, “The New Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God,” Kreeft writes: “If there’s a Big Bang, there must be a Big Banger.” Then there’s this one, under the heading, “The World’s Worst Smell”: “Bodies stink after they die; dead souls, before.” (Think about that!) Or how about this contrast between heaven and hell: “Hell is an unending church service without God. Heaven is God without a church service.”

The first proverb in Kreeft’s book—and the one that ties in to today’s devotional—says this, “All proverbs are half-truths—including this one.” Now, in my opinion, that pretty much sums up the tentative nature of many proverbs. Sometimes—in certain situations—they’re applicable. In others, not so much. After all, which is truer, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” or “Out of sight, out of mind”? The fact is, both are true, depending on the circumstances.

In Ecclesiastes 9:11–18, the Preacher draws some conclusions that seem to contradict other portions of Scripture. He writes, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” Obviously, this is all too often true. The best people do not experience the best in life. Sometimes, the wise are poor while fools are wealthy, or the just imprisoned while their unjust wardens roam free. This is a simple variation on the problem of evil, that we do not get what we deserve but are instead the victims of time and chance.

And yet, other Scriptures indicate that a wise man will be rewarded for his wisdom in this life, that he will get the rewards he has worked for: “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4). According to Psalm 1.3, the one who meditates day and night on God’s Law is “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” Jesus himself articulated this principle in Matthew 6.33, when he said, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” In context, “all these things” refer to what we eat, drink, and wear—to our material possessions in other words.

So which principle is truer? That wisdom has no rewards because life is filled with time and chance, or that wisdom has its reward because life is directed by God toward justice? Well, both are equally true, but along different horizons. Over the near horizon, the wise may see time and chance rob them of their just deserts. But over the long horizon, God will reward the wise for their righteous behavior. In the Christian religion, it is an article of faith that justice will be done, whether now or eventually. That is why the Preacher counsels wisdom despite his admission that it does not always pay off in the short term: “wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.”

One more from Kreeft: “In hell the auto mechanics have to drive the cars they ‘fixed’ on earth.” I cannot imagine a more truthful proverb, viewed over the long horizon, of course.

Christian Hedonism (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)

You can watch today’s Daily Word by clicking on the image below. But first, please read Ecclesiastes 9:7–10.

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God filled this world with many pleasures; it is your religious duty to enjoy them.

Now, I suppose that such an idea strikes some of you as slightly off kilter, as the kind of thing a Christian ought not to say. In 1 John 2:16 we read, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” Aren’t we supposed to avoid worldly pleasures?

Yes and no.

Yes, we ought to avoid pleasures that cause us to love anything more than God, whether they are food, drink, sex, or whatever. Pleasure becomes worldly when it leads us to violate the first and second greatest commandments: Love God, and love neighbor as self (Mark 12:28–34).

But no, avoiding worldly pleasures does not mean avoiding the pleasures that are present in the world. Remember, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, and when had done so, he pronounced all of them “good” (Genesis 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) or “very good” (1:30). Indeed, he “blessed” the first man and woman in precisely the one area that so many Christians associate with worldly pleasures, namely, their sexuality (1:28).

A Christian may take pleasure in everything present in God’s world, provided that he or she does so in the way God intended that pleasure to be experienced. The Preacher, in Ecclesiastes 9:7–10, counsels you to “eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” Not only so, but he goes on to say, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life.” You can eat and drink, as long as you do not become gluttonous. And you can enjoy sex—you ought to enjoy sex!—as long as it is with your spouse. All these pleasures are part of God’s will for you in this present age: “God has already approved what you do” and “this is your portion in life.”

But, of course, there are pleasures and then there are pleasures. The pleasures of this world are wonderful, but a better world is coming. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay, “The Weight of Glory”:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Properly speaking, then, every Christian is—and ought to be—a hedonist, both in this life and in the life to come.

In the Hands of God (Ecclesiastes 9:1–6)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 9:1–6.

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Ecclesiastes 9:1–6 teaches that your life is in the hands of God.

Obviously, in a general sense, everyone’s life is in God’s hands. He is the Creator of “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and therefore everything in them belongs to him (Psalm 24:1). He is the Provider of the needs of all people. As Jesus said, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God also is the Savior, who offers divine forgiveness to all, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And finally, he is the Judge of all, for we “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

And yet, the Preacher is not speaking in a general sense when he says that your life is in God’s hands. He is speaking instead of the specific providence God exercises on behalf of the godly when he works all things together for their good (Romans 8:28). It is only “the righteous and the wise and their deeds” who are God’s hands in this specific sense. Only the children of the Heavenly Father can know God’s special care for them, even though God desires good to come to all people.

Now, the truth that your life is in God’s hand should provide great comfort to you for several reasons. First, it should comfort you because in this life, you will experience “love and hate” from other people. Whether others treat you good or bad, with affection or antagonism, God is working for your good.

Second, it should comfort you because death is a universal human constant. Notice that the Preacher emphasizes this common fate through repetition of contrasting characteristics. Death comes to righteous and wicked, good and evil, clean and unclean, religious and irreligious, oath-takers and oath breakers. “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.” Looking upon his fate, the wicked man determines to fill his heart with evil. “If death befalls both good and bad, why be good?” he asks. The wise person knows better. There is more to life than just what happens “under the sun.” God will reward in eternity those who do what is right in this life, and punish those who do wrong without repentance (Romans 2:6–11).

Third, God’s special providence for the godly should strengthen you to live well in the present. As the Preacher whimsically states the matter, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” The word comfort derives from Latin, where it originally meant “with strength.” God’s comfort of the godly is not a mere palliative, something to lessen your pain. It is a stimulant, which awakens you to God’s care for you and energizes your good deeds on his behalf. Precisely because death is so tragic—rendering your actions in this life moot, to a certain degree—you ought to live your life with divine purpose and energy.

You live life “under the sun,” where death prevails. But your life is in the hands of One who lives “above the sun.” So, knowing that God cares for you, live well!

Joy Is a Deliberate Choice (Ecclesiastes 8:14–17)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, read Ecclesiastes 8.14–17.

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In Ecclesiastes 8.14–17, the Preacher identifies two realities that we all experience on the journey through life: injustice and ignorance. Both are obstacles in our path, and both have the power to turn us aside from the road to heaven, if we let them. But there is a way through the obstacles, the Preacher tells us; it is the way of joy as a deliberate choice.

Consider our experience of injustice. Long ago, Aristotle defined justice as treating equals equally and unequals unequally in proportion to their relevant differences. Justice, in other words, is fair; it gives people the rewards due them.

Unfortunately, we often see people receiving rewards not due them, of equals being treated unequally and unequals equally. Thieves get rich off stolen money, for example, while the hardworking lose the wealth they have spent a lifetime saving due to theft. As the Preacher puts it, “there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.” Injustice happens; it cannot be avoided, and we must choose how to respond when we see it around us.

Ignorance happens too. Whereas injustice occurs because bad people choose to do bad things, ignorance happens because human beings are finite creatures whose intellectual limits are part of their nature. Had Adam and Eve never sinned, it is safe to say, injustice never would have touched the world. But human beings still would have been ignorant; it is simply part of who we are.

So, the Preacher writes, “man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” Notice the negative verbs: cannot and will not. There are some things we will never know because we cannot know them. They are too great for our comprehension. We must choose how to respond to our ignorance.

The Preacher tells us that our best course of action is to deliberately choose joy in the face of both injustice and ignorance. “And I commend joy,” the Preacher writes, “for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”

The Preacher is not commending hedonism in place of justice or wisdom, by the way. As I pointed out in yesterday’s devotional, the Preacher believes that God is just, so we ought to act justly too. But in addition to justice, the Preacher advocates joy, an intentional optimism that seeks out the pleasures God built in creation, wherever they may legitimately be found. In our struggle for justice, we should never become dour, unhappy people. God did not make us that way.

Nor did he create us to be unhappy with our ignorance. What we can learn, we should learn. But when we bump up against the limits of human knowledge, we should be humble enough to admit that we are but God’s little creatures and find happiness in that discovery.

Injustice happens. So does ignorance. Choose joy anyway.

The Arc of the Universe (Ecclesiastes 8:10–13)

Before you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 8:10–13.

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“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered those words in the midst of his struggle to lead our nation to acknowledge the full civil rights of black Americans. His words also accurately summarize the message of Ecclesiastes 8:10–13, which serves as an encouragement to righteousness and a warning against wickedness.

The Preacher begins by making two observations:

First, he writes, “I saw the wicked buried.” Like all things that exist under the sun, human beings are mortal. Their lives are hebel, “vanity”—things that go “Poof!” The fate of death befalls all people, regardless of the morality or immorality of the pattern of their lives. In and of themselves, the deaths of the wicked do not trouble anyone’s conscience, for death is a human constant, a universal expectation.

What troubles the sensitive conscience is not the deaths of the wicked, but their lives. This is the Preacher’s second observation: “They [the wicked] used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things.” The spirituality and morality of the wicked relate to one another in inverse proportions: The greater their religiosity, the less their integrity, character, and good deeds. Such hypocrisy is troubling.

It is pointless too, or as the Preacher writes: “This also is vanity.” Why? Because God is just, and if he does not execute justice at the present moment, he will execute it sometime in the future.

Consequently, the Preacher’s words warn the wicked to cease and desist their law-breaking, God-mocking behavior. Unfortunately, because bad people so often get away with their misdeeds, others think that they can live without rules too. “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” But all of us—whether we are struggling to be good or striving to be bad—should approach life with one eye firmly on the future. If God is just, he will establish justice in the world, whether right now or eventually.

In the meantime, God offers us a chance to repent and do good deeds (2 Peter 3:9). God’s justice encourages us to do the right thing, even when doing so does not bring immediate benefits, because we know that God desires, honors, and ultimately rewards this kind of behavior. As the Preacher writes, “it will be well with those who fear God,” that is, show him the reverence and awe he deserves n every area of their lives.

At times, I am sure, Dr. King despaired of the progress of the Civil Rights movement. Such incremental steps toward justice, so much persecution, so many setbacks! And yet, because he was a Christian, Dr. King was an optimist. Justice will prevail.

God is just, so his creation is bent toward justice. In the long arc of our lives, we ought to patiently bend with it.

Wisdom and Government (Ecclesiastes 8:1–9)

Beifore you watch or read today’s Daily Word, please read Ecclesiastes 8:1–9.

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A wise person obeys the law. That, in a nutshell, is the message of Ecclesiastes 8:1–9. Like so much else in Ecclesiastes, the message is obvious and common sensical, but it also raises difficult questions for those who live under difficult governments.

The Preacher begins with two questions and two observations. The questions are rhetorical. Wisdom makes a person incomparably valuable because he understands God, the world, and himself. The observations relate to the effects of wisdom, which makes a person happy (shining face) and ready to change bad habits (unhardened face).

Now, according to the Preacher, a wise person keeps the king’s command, more literally, pays attention to the king’s mouth. In other words, he knows the law and keeps abreast of current affairs. Moreover, he shows government officials the respect due their offices. That is what it means to not leave the king’s presence in a hurry.

Why does the wise person offer the king obedience and respect? The Preacher articulates two reasons: one based on principle and the other on practicality. The principled reason for obedience and respect is the oath of God. The English Standard Version translates the Hebrew of this verse as an oath God makes to the king, while the New International Version translates it as an oath, under God, that the wise person makes to the king: “because you took an oath before God.” Either way, the effect is the same: obey and respect the government as a matter of principle.

But the Preacher offers a practical reason as well: Government is powerful. The king “does whatever he pleases.” In the ancient world, the power of government was often arbitrary and whimsical, because it rested almost solely in the hands of one person—the monarch. But even in our democratic day and age, government can still act arbitrarily and whimsically. A wise person knows this and strives to stay on the good side of the law.

And yet, what about those who live under corrupt dictatorships, where the rule of law is a farce, and where there is no moral principle but only amoral power? Does the Preacher’s advice still make sense? Would it make sense, for example, for an oppressed and persecuted Christian both to obey and honor an oppressive and persecuting dictator? Yes, within limits. Notice what the preacher says: “the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him.” Even where oppression (trouble) abounds, the wise man knows that a measure of order is preferable to limitless anarchy. The wise person will know when to obey and honor the government and when to seek its removal and replacement. But he will do so carefully, very carefully, lest greater problems be unleashed.

Verse 8 offers an interesting conclusion to the Preacher’s thoughts on the subject of government. The Preacher points out our powerlessness to avoid death, the inevitability of war in the present age, and the self-destructiveness of evil behavior. The last point is the most important, for it serves as a warning both to governors and the governed. To the governors: Oppression will corrupt and in the end destroy you. To the governed: Every revolution devours its own children.

So, a wise person obeys the law, both for principled and practical reasons. But the wise man also knows when to change the law and those who make and enforce it.

What Is Wrong with the World Is Us (Ecclesiastes 7:15–29)

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Let us stipulate, as lawyers say, that the message of Ecclesiastes 7:15–29 is an unexpectedly weird one to find in the Bible, at first glance anyway. It seems alternately despairing (verse 15), cynical (verses 16–17), common sensical (verse 18–22), keenly aware of man’s intellectual limitations (verses 23–24), misogynist (verses 25–28), and acutely cognizant of the origins of man’s problems (verse 29). We expect common sense, keen awareness, and acute cognizance in God’s Word, but despair, cynicism and misogyny? Not so much.

So what should we do with the Preacher’s words, which we also confess to be the Word of God? We read them a second time, being discontent to let our first impressions be our final ones. What do find at second glance?

Realism. Verse 15 simply notes the unhappy truth that in this present life, the righteous perish and the wicked prosper. We might despair over such a situation, but not the Preacher. Rather than whining that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be, the Preacher determines to live in the world as it is. We should do the same.

Humility. Verses 16–17 seem cynical, as if to say that moderate goodness is desirable or moderate wickedness excusable. “Be not overly righteous” and “be not overly wicked” might be the slogans of our morally confused age, which hates actual saints as powerfully as obvious sinners, but they are not the slogans of the Preacher. As Michael A. Eaton points out, “what is discouraged is not excessive righteousness but self-righteousness,” on the one hand, and “capitulation to evil” on the other. The Preacher knows that even a very good person cannot claim to be wholly without fault (verse 20), especially in matters of speech (verse 22). What such a person needs is humility, the ability to see himself, under God, as a sinner who nevertheless has control of his own actions. This is the fear of God.

Wisdom. Verse 19 articulates the Preacher’s consistent theme throughout Ecclesiastes. The good life is the wise life, and wisdom blesses those who possess it. Wisdom and humility go hand in hand, for wisdom shows us the limitations of our knowledge and so produces humility (verses 23–24).

Sexual propriety. A common theme of the Bible’s wisdom literature (best articulated in Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) is the goodness of a wife and the badness of a mistress (verses 25–29). Ecclesiastes 9:9 states the desirability of marriage: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” By contrast, the mistress—or prostitute—is a woman to assiduously avoid. This is hardly misogynistic. Indeed, we could reverse the Preacher’s image, and it would be just as true: A husband is good; an adulterous lover is bad.

Moral responsibility. Finally, the Preacher identifies the real source of the world’s problems. Hint: It is not God. Sure, God allows bad things to happen to us, but even the worst things can be worked out for the good of the godly (Romans 8:28). God did not introduce trouble to the world. We did. “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” What is wrong with the world (verse 15) is us. If the world is to be made right again, we must be changed. We cannot change ourselves, however.

By showing us our limitations, Ecclesiastes shows us the unexpected wonder of grace: We need a Savior.

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