Ecclesiastes 5. Things Are Not What They Seem

Just when everything seems to be going smoothly, the world can turn sour. That goes for a nation’s economic climate too. Just a few years ago, the economic news in this country was bad (to put it mildly). We faced the possibility of a tremendous recession. In some places it was described as a return to the Great Depression. Unemployment reached record levels in many parts of America.

But the situation is improved today. Economic news is generally much brighter as I sit at my desk writing this chapter–but it may change again by the time this book is published. The pendulum might swing back the other way. Recession might again be knocking at–or knocking down–the door. Unemployment could again skyrocket. The truth is, we must all face the hard times that will surely come. And that makes everyone’s heart sink a little; we react emotionally to such bleak circumstances.

Our view of life may be so distorted that we will not be able to see that hard times can become the best years of our lives. That is what the Searcher tells us in Ecclesiastes chapter 6, where he declares that things are not what they sometimes seem to be. We think life is one way, but it turns out to be something quite different. We may read everything that happens to us in entirely the wrong way.

The Searcher explains that prosperity may not always be good; and in the first fourteen verses of chapter 7 he takes up the opposite truth, that adversity may not always be bad. What we need, of course, is a true view of good and evil. How may we recognize good when it is good? How may we identify evil for what it is? We would save ourselves much heartache if we could do that … and the wonderful thing about Scripture is that it does it. Here we have the true view of good and evil.

There are, first, four statements about prosperity that show us material wealth and abundance are not always good. Here is the first one:

I have seen another evil tinder the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, 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 (6:1-2).

Immediately Solomon recognizes that one can have abundance of possessions–all that money can buy–and yet lack the power to enjoy them. It’s a heavy burden to bear. Many people today suffer from this. They drive shiny new cars, they have the latest electronic equipment in their luxurious homes, they visit the most fashionable clubs and restaurants. They are trying desperately to enjoy these things–yet their faces have a hollowness about them. Their eyes betray an emptiness inside.

Occasionally I have stepped into casinos in Reno or Las Vegas to see what the places looked like. There I saw people intent on getting rich, desperate to enjoy life more. Yet they looked like death warmed over. They sat there unsmiling, pulling at those one-armed bandits. There was nothing about them to suggest they really enjoyed anything they were doing. It looked instead like deadly serious work. What a boring thing that is! I marvel at the jaded lives of those who have everything…but who cannot enjoy anything they have.

The Searcher goes on to say that material wealth and abundance can be frustrating when you see a stranger enjoying what you cannot. Can there be anything more irritating than getting what you have always wanted, only to discover that it has lost its luster; then passing it on to someone who cannot afford it but who has a ball with it? That would make one frustrated and resentful: “Why couldn’t I enjoy it?”

The key to all this is in the phrase, “God does not enable him to enjoy.” This book pounds home that lesson over and over again. Enjoyment does not come with increased possessions–it is a gift that God must give! If He withholds it, no amount of effort can gain it. That is a difficult lesson for some to learn. We are constantly bombarded with alluring pictures in catalogs and in commercials that relentlessly advocate the opposite message. Enjoyment, however, is a gift from God.

But why would God withhold enjoyment? Why would He not give the power to enjoy if He gives the ability to have? The answer is clearly stated in chapter 2, where the Searcher says:

...without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness … (2:25-26).

“To the man who pleases Him.” Again, I am afraid many read that as though it meant some level of religious performance, some standard of morality like joining a church or coming to meetings. We must understand that the Scriptures never say that. Faith is what pleases God! Believing Him, taking Him at His Word, and acting upon that Word is what pleases God. It is obedience based upon faith. To such a man or woman God gives the gift of enjoying whatever he or she has.

How little or much it may be, it is enjoyed only as a gift poured out from God’s hand. That is why gratitude, to be grateful for what you get, is the most important element of our lives.

How contrary this is to the spirit of our age! Shouted at us on every side is the philosophy that we have a right to things. Television commercials constantly tell us this. They hold up some alluring object and accompany it with propaganda that says, “You deserve this. You’ve got it coming to you. If you were being treated rightly, this is what you would have.” That is the spirit of the times. Do we realize how it contradicts what the Bible teaches about our relationship to God? How can we be grateful if we get only what we deserve? We cannot be grateful for that. Gratitude comes only when we believe we have been given something we have not earned.

All through Scripture we are told that the proper response of a believer to God is to give thanks for everything: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). This book of wisdom exhorts us to receive everything with a grateful heart, realizing that we do not have it coming to us; it is a gift of God. Even if it is painful for the moment, a wise Father has chosen it for us, and it will yield to us great and rich benefits. You can be as grateful for the pain as for the pleasure. That is the lesson of this book.

The Searcher’s second observation is that long life and a big family, without the gift of enjoyment, is a grievous and hurtful thing.

A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 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 [two thousand years] but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place? (6:3-6).

Even a big family, which usually brings much cheer, excitement, and pleasure to life … even a long life with many children and grandchildren … will not of itself meet man’s deep hunger for contentment. It will still leave him restless, unhappy, involved in quarrels and family strife, leaving the heart unsatisfied. Without the gift of enjoyment nothing will satisfy. Nothing will produce long-lasting joy.

If such is the case, the Searcher says, even a stillborn baby is better off. Why? For two reasons. First, a stillborn infant has no history to live down. “It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded.” No one knows anything about it; it has no history, so no one can put it down or in any way attack it. Furthermore, while it will not experience trouble, the wealthy man will: “Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man.” Even long life, say two thousand years of life, would not help. Both the stillborn baby and the wealthy man who lives a long life without enjoyment end up at the same place; neither finds enjoyment.

The third point the Searcher makes is found in verses 7 through 9:

All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. What advantage has a wise man over afoot? What does a poor man gain by knowing how to conduct himself before others?Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Here he points out how man is incapable of finding joy by his own effort. Hard work will not do it: “All man’s efforts are for his mouth.” Toil is designed to satisfy man’s appetite for pleasure and contentment, but hard work and a desperate drive to satisfy oneself along these lines will never work. It cannot produce lasting pleasure.

But neither will wisdom, or even charm. Of wisdom, he says, “What advantage has a wise man over a fool?” You may be wise in your investments, careful with your money, you may pursue pleasure moderately; but it is still not going to work without the gift of enjoyment. If that is all you have, you are no different than the fool. Even a poor man who learns how to charm others (“knowing how to conduct himself before others”) is still left empty, lonely, and miserable inside.

The reason is given in the closing verses of this chapter.

Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he (6:10).

Man is up against the unalterable decree of God. The Searcher tells us God has decreed that enjoyment cannot be found by effort, by cleverness, nor by the pursuit of pleasure. Enjoyment must be taken as a gift from God’s hand. The decree is as unalterable as the law of gravity. You may not agree with God about it, you may not like it, but there it is; it cannot be changed. You cannot dispute with one who is stronger than you.

The Searcher points out three things about this. First, God decreed it before man was ever created: “Whatever exists has already been named”-even before it happened. God created this strange law of life before man ever appeared on earth.

Second, it was decreed in view of what man is: “What man is has been known.” God made us. He knows what we are like, how we function, what will satisfy and what will not. He therefore set up this decree that enjoyment cannot be found by possessing things. Jesus said it plainly: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Third, the Searcher says it was decreed in spite of what man might try to do. “No man can contend with one who is stronger than he.” How are you going to change the laws of God? Although they may appear very much against us, there is nothing we can do about it. Arguing about it, he goes on to say, does not help.

The more the words, the less meaning, and how does that profit anyone? (6:11).

C. S. Lewis said it so well: “To argue with God is to argue with the very power that makes it possible to argue at all.” How do you change that?

The Searcher goes on to speak of man’s weakness. There are two reasons why this law cannot be changed: first, because God decreed it; and second, because man is so limited.

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? (6:12).

He asks two questions. First, who knows true value in life? Where is the man who understands what is good and what is bad? Nobody does, so the Searcher asks, “Who knows what is good for man?” Did you ever wish for something you thought was just right for you, and then when you got it you wished you didn’t have it? A high school boy once said to me, “I prayed, ‘Lord, if I could just go with that beautiful girl I’d be the happiest boy alive.’ Then we got acquainted. We went out a few times together, and I found myself praying, ‘Lord, if I could just get rid of this girl I’d be the happiest guy alive!” Who knows what is good for man? Surely we do not.

Then the second question, Who knows what is coming in the future? “Who can tell him what will happen … after he is gone?”

Who knows what the results of our present choices will be? Given our limited, narrow vision of what life is–which is true of the smartest and most erudite among us-what business have we got complaining to God about how our life is run? Let us accept the reality that we are not wise enough to know what is good for us, and then let us trust God to choose the elements we need.

If prosperity is not always good, as the Searcher has clearly shown, then it is equally true that adversity is not always bad. Suppose hard times do come? What then? Many good and even great things can come out of them.

In chapter 7 a series of proverbs lists the good things that can happen in affliction. Here is the first one:

A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth (7:1).

Don’t miss this play on words. The Hebrew word for name is shem, and the Hebrew word for perfume or ointment is shemen. The Searcher is saying that a good shem is better than precious shemen. This, of course, refers to perfume, which has the ability to attract others.

The Searcher declares that a good name is truly influential. It is not like perfume, which does not last long (even if it is costly). A good name endures. One will pass by many garish-looking restaurants to visit some little hole-in-the-wall that serves good food at a decent price. A good name attracts. Even the poorest among us can have a name for integrity, for trustworthiness. Even though you may not be able to afford Chanel No. 5 and other expensive perfumes, yet you can always afford a good name. Another aspect of adversity is the lesson that sorrow teaches.

It is better to go 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 (7:2).

When you are confronted with death you are no longer dealing with side issues; you are dealing at last with realities. Death leads to realism. Though it will bring sorrow, grief, and mourning, you set aside the shallow, ephemeral aspects of life and start to deal with the facts. On the other hand, feasting can be deceitful and lead to unreal living.

Second, the Searcher says, sorrow leads to gladness.

Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart (7:3).

And not only gladness, but wisdom:

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (7:4).

How can that be? How can sorrow, grief, adversity, and pain lead to gladness and wisdom? Anyone who has been through a painful trial knows that it is often true. Even though the events he describes happened a decade ago, John Ehrlichman’s book Witness to Power makes fascinating reading. Ehrlichman served under Richard Nixon, and was for awhile one of the most powerful men in the United States. He fell from power when he became involved in the Watergate scandal and was sent to jail. Here are a few excerpts of his account before and after the days of Watergate, taken from the last chapter of his book. He says:

When I went to jail, nearly two years after the cover-up trial, I had a big self-esteem problem. I was a felon, shorn and scorned, clumping around in a rugged old army uniform, doing pick and shovel work out in the desert. I wondered if anyone thought I was worth anything …. …For years I had been able to sweep most of my shortcomings and failures under the rug and not face them, but during the two long criminal trials I spent my days listening to prosecutors tell juries what a bad fellow I was. Then at night I’d go back to a hotel room and sit alone thinking about what was happening to me. During that time I began to take stock.

He goes on to describe how his marriage failed, and how he went off by himself, seeking solitude on the cold and windy shores of Oregon, where he stayed alone in a cabin.

I stayed about two weeks. Every day I read the Bible, walked on the beach and sat in front of my fireplace thinking and sketching, with no outline or agenda. I had no idea where all this was leading or what answers I’d find. Most of the time I didn’t even know what the questions were. I just watched and listened. I was wiped out. I had nothing left that had been of value to me–honor, credibility, virtue, recognition, profession–nor did I have the allegiance of my family. I had managed to lose that too ….

He moved to New Mexico and started life over in Santa Fe. Here are the closing words of the book:

Since about 1975 1 have begun to learn to see myself. I care what I perceive about my integrity, my capacity to love and be loved, and my essential worth. I don’t miss Richard Nixon very much, and Richard Nixon probably doesn’t miss me much either. I can understand that. I’ve made no effort to be in touch. We had a professional relationship that went as sour as a relationship can, and no one likes to be reminded of bad times. Those interludes, the Nixon episodes in my life, have ended. In a paradoxical way, I’m grateful for them. Somehow I had to see all of that and grow to understand it in order to arrive at the place where I find myself now.

That is a moving confirmation of what the Searcher tells us here! Through times of sorrow and adversity we begin to understand the reality of our lives. No wonder he immediately adds to this the words of verses 5 and 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.

Oftentimes a rebuke will help more than foolish songs and hollow laughter. Adversity can be of much benefit to us.

Still another benefit is found in verses 7 through 10:

Surely oppression makes the wise foolish, and a bribe corrupts the heart (7:7, NRSV).

Here he deals with specific adversity. If you suffer injustice, if someone oppresses you, or if someone bribes another to attack you, that is hard to bear. You want to strike back. But wait, he says:

The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools (7:8-9).

Nothing has been more of a problem in my life than a short fuse, a quick burst of anger. To learn patience is one of the great lessons that adversity can teach us.

Then he adds to that:

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions (7:10).

Looking back, it all looks so good, but living through those times wasn’t any better than your life now. In fact, ten years from now you will look back on today as the good old days, so remember what they are really like. Time dims our memories of the past so that the present looks bleak–but it is not really so.

Finally he speaks about wisdom:

Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun (7:11).

Learning to be wise and thoughtful about life has benefits for you.

He continues:

The protection of wisdom is like the protection of money [it can spare you a lot of problems], and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it (7:12, NRSV).

Out of adversity can come wisdom, and that has great advantages as a protection against further trouble and pain.

But now he comes back to his conclusion:

Consider what God has done: who can straighten what he has made crooked? (7:13).

Under the idea of “crookedness” come all those things we call adversities–pain, injustice, mistreatment, poverty, sickness, accidents. His question is, “Who can straighten what [God] has made crooked?” God did all this, as he goes on to say clearly 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.

Prosperity and adversity both come from God’s hands; a wise Father’s heart has given them to you. Let us live by the words of the old hymn by Lina Sandell Berg:

Day by day, and with each passing moment, Strength I find to meet my trials here; Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, I’ve no cause for worry or for fear. God has given all these experiences to us. We must learn to accept and understand that God has chosen them out of love and wisdom. They have a special purpose, stated in these last words:

God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future (7:14).

God has designed life to be full of the unexpected so we might realize that we do not control our future.

We are not in charge of life. The great satanic lie that subtly comes at us a thousand times a day is that we are gods, we are in charge, we can plan, we can direct, we can control. In the freedom of will that God has granted us there is enough truth in that so that we easily believe we can ultimately control everything. But the lesson of Scripture, driven home again and again, is that it is not true. God is in charge. What He sends us is always designed to benefit. Even though adversity may have painful aspects, we must understand that it comes from a loving God, and be grateful for it.

Dale Martin Stone’s poem, “The Shaping of a Disciple,” helps us understand how God lovingly uses the pain in life to mold us into what He knows we ought to be. When God wants to drill a man, And thrill a man, and skill a man; When God wants to mold a man To play for Him the noblest part, When He yearns with all His heart To create so great and bold a man That all the world shall be amazed, Then watch God’s methods, watch His ways! How He ruthlessly perfects Whom He royally elects; How He hammers him and hurts him, And with mighty blows converts him Making shapes and forms which only God Himself can understand, Even while His man is crying, Lifting a beseeching hand… Yet God bends but never breaks When man’s good He undertakes; When He uses whom He chooses, And with every purpose fuses Man to act, and act to man, As it was when He began; When God tries His splendor out, Man will know what He’s about! -Stone

Click Here for 6. Whoever Said Life Was Fair?