Ecclesiastes 9. How Then Should We Live

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. –Ecclesiastes 11:6, NRSV

]The title I have given to this study in Ecclesiastes 10 is the question, “How, Then, Should We Live?” Some may immediately recognize that this is a slight alteration of the title of a book by Dr. Francis Schaeffer. His way of putting the question is, How Should We Then Live? I have always been uncomfortable with his placement of the word then in that title. It makes me feel the way I have felt when I have been a guest in someone’s home and noticed a picture askew on the wall. As soon as my host left the room I jumped up, straightened the picture, and heaved a sigh of relief. So please forgive my impertinence in correcting the question to, “How, then, should we live?”

That is a good question to ask at this point in our study of Ecclesiastes. In view of the new insights into life we have gained from this book, in view of the provision that God Himself has made to supply to us directly the gift of enjoyment, we must ask, “How, then, should we live?” That is the question the Searcher takes up as he draws near the end of his book.

The answer is threefold. He tells us, first, that we ought to live supportively; that is, to be responsible to work with others, especially with regard to government. Second, he tells us to live generously, to be warmly responsive to the needs of those around us. And third, we should live thoughtfully, responding daily to the truth that is taught in this book and throughout Scripture.

Live supportively! Live generously! Live thoughtfully!

Let us take the first one–live supportively–beginning with verse 16. This has to do with government. It is only natural that King Solomon would be much concerned about government. He was the head of state in his day. We have noted that the Word of God gives many directions about the relationship between believers and the government. Clearly, government is part of God’s plan for life.

King Solomon admits in this section that not all government is good:

Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant, and your princes feast in the morning! Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman, and your princes feast at the proper time–for strength, and not for drunkenness! (10:16-17, NRSV).

Some governments (administrations is the word we would use) are hard to live with. They are headed by persons who are either incompetent, impulsive, and simpleminded; or na•ve, vain, and insecure. Or even untrustworthy and weak. The Watergate scandal is history now, and we can see that much of the turmoil and trouble that plagued Americans in those days stemmed from the insecurity and the untrustworthy character of the man who was president at the time.

When Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski died, the news media reported on his career. They said that during Jaworski’s investigation of the intrigue surrounding Watergate, the thing that struck him most forcefully was hearing a tape of President Nixon instructing a subordinate about how to lie so as to avoid committing perjury. That struck Jaworski as a most serious revelation of the weakness of our former head of state.

That is what these words of Scripture represent as well. Some governments are weak; they do not have the kind of leadership we need.

Along with such inadequate leadership we often find a hierarchy of officials given over to self-indulgence and self-serving. Solomon speaks of that here when he writes, “Your princes feast in the morning.” In Hebrew culture the morning was to be used to judge the needs and problems of the people. Late afternoon and evening were the times for feasting. But here were men who indulged themselves all through the day; thereby neglecting their duties. Some administrations are like that, even in a democratic nation such as ours.

But we can also get good government. The Searcher tells us, “Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman.” The phrase, “your king is a nobleman,” perhaps should be translated, “your king is a free man.” That is, he is free to be what he should be. He has control of himself; he is not a slave to his needs or his impulses. His subordinates will also reflect that. They are responsible people who take care of their duties and feast at the proper time–and then only to gain strength, not to get drunk.

The point of all this comes in the next two verses, which tell those who are seeking to be wise with God’s wisdom how to react to government, whether it is good or bad. What should we do? Here are a couple of proverbs to guide us:

If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks (10:18).

Does your house leak? If it does, you now know the reason for it! I had a leak in my roof for five years before it was finally fixed, so I must acknowledge that the verse is true. Here the Searcher compares the nation to a house. The application is that a people who are given over to industriousness, hard work, and profitable-though-demanding labor are laying the foundation for stability in government, no matter what the leader is like. Without that foundation of hard work and readiness to work, the roof falls in–the house leaks. Then a nation is insecure, and subject to invasion.

The second proverb continues the same thought:

A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything (10:19).

That sounds very up-to-date. But he is saying, of course, that even the legitimate, normal, proper joys of life–bread, which enables us to feast together, and wine, which gladdens life–are all made available by money: “Money is the answer for everything.” The idea is that money supplies everything that is needed, and money comes from hard and profitable work.

The way to enjoy the normal pleasures of life (and the way a nation keeps strong and healthy) is to be given over to a willingness to work, in order to have money rather than to be dependent on handouts. Running all through Scripture is a recognition of the value of labor. This touches on the question of a welfare state, and on the increasingly luxurious living standards of our day. It declares that what makes a nation healthy, despite even the weakness of its leaders, is industrious, hardworking citizens who are willing to pay their own way and put in full time at their jobs. That is the way to support the government.

He closes this section with a warning about complaining against government:

Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say (10:20).

This must be the origin of the popular saying, “A little bird told me.” This may also be the first recorded instance of the bugging of a home by the government It clearly reflects the modern proverb, “Even the walls have ears.”

“Do not revile the king even in your thoughts.” This does not imply that if you do complain, it might get back to the king and he will be angry with you and punish you. Rather, it suggests that your constant complaining about leadership creates a condition that spreads dissatisfaction with and distrust of government. We may be seeing something of that today The present generation, by and large, distrusts the powers and rights of government. This may be because young people now entering their majority have heard us who are older grumbling so much about the government that they have learned to distrust it, to feel that it is an unnecessary evil, and to react violently against it,

I once saw an article that predicted a soon-coming day when no American president will be able to serve more than one term in office. The reason? The media so scrutinizes the president and criticizes so vehemently everything he does and every word he speaks that no president will be able to stand the glare of such adverse publicity. It will be impossible to elect him to office a second term because nobody will trust him.

This is a commentary in our time against too much examination of people’s lives, especially too much criticism of what they do. The American way is to elect a man to office, give him six months to change everything, and if he does not do it, spend the next three-and-a-half years complaining about it.

There is a destructive element in complaining and griping about what government does. What a difference it makes in the quality of government if we show our support for those who are in office! The appeal of the Searcher is that if you want to be wise–remembering all that God provides in life as revealed in this book–then live supportively of the government.

His second word of admonition is found in chapter 11, verses 1-6. Here the word is live generously.

Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.

The idea here is openhanded generosity. Give freely, wisely, but generously to the needs of others. This phrase,

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” was a proverb in Israel for what looked like wasteful expenditure. No one would take good bread and throw it in the river; he would be regarded as reckless. But here we are encouraged to do that very thing. This is not advising us to thoughtlessly and carelessly give away our money, spending it like a drunken sailor. What is meant is, “Be willing to take a chance where a real need is evident.”

When you see people in need, though you do not know how they may use your money–it may not be apparent that they will even use it wisely–nevertheless, be generous. That is what he is saying. “Cast your bread upon the waters,” take a chance, for in the wisdom and purpose of God it may very well return to you someday when you need help. I could relate several stories of people who have helped strangers, although they had no idea that their help was going to be used properly; then later when they found themselves in serious trouble, that person or that deed reappeared to help them. This is what the Searcher is encouraging.

Also, give as widely as possible: “Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” This Hebrew idiom is one way of saying, “Give to as many as you can, and then some.” Its purpose is not to limit the number we should have on our to-help list. Be generous. Do not stop with a few close needs around you. When someone at your door asks for help, do not say, “I gave at the office.” You do not know what evil may be averted by your gift; that is the implication of this verse.

Giving is a way of relieving need, but oftentimes the need is not fully expressed. We must be sensitive to people’s feelings, and to the fact that in their pride they sometimes hide dire needs. But if we are generous in our giving, we often meet needs that we do not know anything about. If we spread it as wisely as we can, we continue to meet unknown needs.

Note the following four reasons for this kind of generosity. The Searcher again quotes some proverbs. Here are two good reasons, in verse 3:

If clouds are full of water, they pour rain upon the earth [nobody in California can contradict that!]. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie.

What does this mean? We must take this in the light of the context. The first reason we are to give generously is that it is the natural outflow of a full life, like rain-filled clouds that empty themselves again and again upon the earth.

One winter I was entranced to watch the weather reports about Hurricane Iwa, which hit the Hawaiian Islands and dumped billions of gallons of water there. Then it moved across the Pacific and hit the West Coast, dumping more billions of gallons of water on us. It moved up into the Sierras, then into the Rockies and across into the plains states. It caused much flooding in Missouri, Arkansas, and the Mississippi Valley. Then it moved on across the nation and dumped water again on the east coast, continuing out at last into the Atlantic.

Like clouds that are full of rain, a life that is full of the blessing and grace of God ought to shower many others with that blessing. Remember the words of Jesus, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). God has blessed us abundantly in this country. Despite an occasional recession we are still the richest nation on earth. The poorest among us are better off than the rich in many countries of the world. God has richly blessed us. We are to give because it is the natural outflow of a life that is already filled with the blessings of God, not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.

The second parable, about the tree falling to the south or north, is somewhat more difficult to interpret. But one day I saw a motto in someone’s kitchen that captures exactly what this idiom teaches. It said, “Bloom where you are planted.” That is, it is God who controls the fall of a tree in the forest; whether it falls to the south or the north is determined by divine providence. But where it falls, that is where it is to be.

This is Solomon’s way of saying to us, “Where God has put you, right in your present circumstances, that is where you are to give. Meet the needs around you. Supply the needs of those with whom you come in contact.” That does not always mean geographically You may be in touch with someone halfway around the world whose needs you are aware of, but God has brought that to your knowledge so that you can meet that need.

A third reason is given in verse 4:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

That is, do not wait for the perfect time to give. Do not wait until you have a certain amount in the bank before you start giving. This is a good word for young people. You sometimes think that because you have a limited income you cannot give; but if you wait until you get enough to live on, you will never give. Give as the need arises, as the opportunity comes, as far as possible. That is the exhortation here.

Finally, in verses 5 and 6, he mentions a fourth reason, a very insightful one:

Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good (NRSV).

Twice in those verses is the phrase, “you do not know.” We have seen many times in this book the mystery connected with life. There is much we do not know. One of the things no one has yet understood, even in this scientific age, is “how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb.” How does the human personality, that which distinguishes us from the beasts, form in the yet unborn fetus? No one knows, but it is present; the child is a human being.

This is another verse that clearly supports the pro-life movement of today, for it indicates beyond doubt that a fetus is a person.

These verses point up our lack of understanding of the power of God. We do not know how He uses gifts, but He does–and He uses them in remarkable ways. Remember the story of Jesus observing the people throwing their money into the temple treasury? One woman threw in two pennies, two mites, the smallest coin in Israel. Yet of her Jesus said, “This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others” (Mark 12:43). Many have puzzled over those words. Two mites are hardly a drop in the bucket compared with the wealth that may have been put into that treasury that day.

What did Jesus mean? What He said was literally true. That story from the lips of Jesus has been repeated all over the earth, in every culture and dime. For two thousand years it has been told again and again. It has motivated more people to give than any other story ever told. Thus it is true that in the wisdom and power of God that tiny gift was so multiplied that it has outweighed all the giving of any single gift from any individual, no matter how rich, throughout the history of Christendom.

That is the power of God to use our gifts. We do not know what He is going to do with the money and the help that we give.

Nor do we understand the timing of God. You cannot say that a gift given at some prosperous time in your life–larger than you could give at any other time–is going to be more used of God than any small gift you present. You cannot tell whether the fifty cents or dollar given when you were in high school or college maybe used of God to produce great benefit in the lives of others, or that something given in old age might not do the same thing. We do not know the power of God or the timing of God. But we are encouraged to give, because “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). He changes and blesses lives, He changes the history of the world by the phenomenon of Christian giving. So live generously, says the Searcher.

A third exhortation says live thoughtfully.

Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless (11:7-8).

Light and sun are symbols of life lived in the love of God. Just as we like to step outside when we see the sun break through on a cloudy, gloomy day, so we can remind ourselves of the love of God, the sense of His acceptance, the joy of His presence, the feeling that we are approved and accepted by Him. Jesus’ brother Jude wrote, “Keep yourselves in God’s love” (Jude 21). This is what makes life beautiful, enjoyable, and gives cause for rejoicing all our days. It is what makes life worth living.

We have seen all through this book that enjoyment does not come from things. “The days of darkness … will be many,” Solomon tells us. It is difficult to know whether this refers to the times of trial and problems in life, or whether it may refer (as I think it may) to the ending of our earthly life. That is what it goes on to speak of in the next chapter. Life is given to us for enjoyment, but the secret of it, as we have seen many times already, is not possessions. Jesus underscored that: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). It is rather a relationship with the living God. Let us rejoice because of that.

In the final two verses of the chapter, Solomon spells out some advice for young people:

Rejoice, young man [the Hebrew expression includes women as well], during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood [womanhood]. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things.

So, remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body [literally, instead of “pain from your body,” it is “evil from your flesh”], because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting (11:9-10, NASH).

This sounds as if God is offering life with one hand and taking it back with the other. “Know that God will bring you to judgment.” It is really an encouragement to realize that it is God who has given the gift of youth, with its strength, its optimism, its cheer, its dreams, its hopes, its opportunities.

I am continually amazed at the energy of young people. We have three little grandsons living with us, When I come home, weary and tired, although they have been tearing around all day they still want to wrestle with me on the floor of the living room. Sometimes I heave a sigh of relief when they finally give up and go to bed. Some of us who are older like to quote George Bernard Shaw, “Youth is such a wonderful thing it is a shame to waste it on young people.”

The point of this is that God gives the gift of youth, so rejoice in it, enjoy it, use it. Relish the strength of it, the cheerfulness of it, the optimism of it. Young people, for the most part, believe that everything is going to turn out all right, so they energetically pursue things. This verse encourages that.

Youth is properly the time to plan, to try new things, to explore new opportunities, new adventures. In my twenties I had the opportunity, following the outbreak of World War II, to go to the Hawaiian Islands and work in industry there. It seemed to me a great and enticing opportunity to see new places. I have always been grateful that I did that in my twenties, when I could enjoy it to the full. I believe that this is what this verse is telling us to do. Youth is the time to seize opportunities and to follow our desires.

But… (there is always a but, isn’t there?) remember that ultimately there must be an accounting. This is a parallel to Paul’s word in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “We must all [all believers] appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” This book will close with that reminder again.

God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (12:14).

That is not a threat. It is simply a guide; a reminder to youth that though there are great, open doors of opportunity flung wide open now, they will not always be there. Therefore enter them with the realization that you must make wise choices. You must deny yourself the pleasures of sin; you must make choices in the light of how your life will ultimately be evaluated.

In Ecclesiastes 11:10, the Searcher specifies exactly what he means. Here is what a young person should do. First, “Remove vexation from your heart.” Vexation is a word that combines the thoughts of anger and resentment. This is one of the great problems of youth. Young people tend to be angry and resentful when things don’t go the way they’d like. God is warning them not to be trapped by that. That is what makes young people rebel; that is what often makes them plunge into distressful and dangerous situations and hurtful experiences. So “remove vexation from your heart.” Do not let it gnaw away at your spirit and thus find yourself an angry young man or a resentful young woman, not liking what God has given you or where He has put you.

Second, “Put away pain from your body [evil from your flesh].” Stop bad and harmful practices. Put away dangerous things–drugs, wrongful use of your sexual powers, damaging things, smoking, drinking, whatever they are–stop them That is what he says. That is to live thoughtfully in the midst of life.

Remember, too, that “childhood and the prime of life are fleeting.” Even that glorious experience of youth is not the reason that life was given. This, again, challenges the secular illusions that we are subjected to all the time. The media blares that youth is the great idol, the thing to seek for. Youth is held up for us to emulate. We are exposed to a thousand ways to find the secret of recovering or preserving our youth: “Buy this new salve or perfume; take this course or use this device, and your youth will be preserved.” But youth, according to the wise words of Scripture, is in itself empty. It is not vitality that satisfies, but a relationship with God. So the Searcher goes on to say in the dosing chapter, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1).

How, then, should we live? Live supportively with regard to the government; live generously with regard to the hurts and needs of those around you; and live thoughtfully as you daily make the choices and decisions of life.

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