What is the right way to live? It’s a big question with many possible answers. We have arrived at the final proverb in Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:8, proverbs in which the Teacher has been helping us make sense of our perplexing world.
I said in the previous post that the Teacher would answer the question, “If we don’t have to be perfect, then what should we do?” Now he is answering that question with his final proverb. The proverb here is that we should find the appropriate time and way to do things.
Here’s how Dorsey translates Ecclesiastes 8:5b-8: “The wise person knows the proper time and way to do things. 6 There is a proper time and way to do everything, despite the fact that life is difficult and uncertain. 7 A wise person cannot know what will happen to him, or when it will happen. 8 He has no authority over his own life-breath or when he will die. He cannot escape life’s battles; even wealth cannot protect him from them.”
But for those of us that struggle with perfectionism, what should we do? The Teacher would say, “Find balance. There is an appropriate way and time.”
As my wife has often said to me about my seminary papers: “Just turn it in as is. You don’t have to get an A.” Whew, that is hard for me to hear. It grates against me. But she’s right. No one is going to care if I got As on seminary papers. While it is not wrong to strive for excellence, we need to let perfectionism go. Sometimes we just have to turn in the paper as is. Steve Jobs famously said, “Real artists ship.” What he meant was that many people have lofty goals, but it is much better to be people who deliver.
I’ve been on church committees in which we can analyze and analyze and analyze an issue to death, trying hard to understand it perfectly, hoping to come up with the perfect solution. Inevitably, the discussion stalls, and we get frustrated, and an idea can get tabled for more discussion. Months go by, and we’re no further along.
This is evidence that we are succumbing to perfectionism.
There is certainly wisdom to patiently examining an issue, to giving time for prayer. We want to avoid the extremes of hastiness and perfectionism. That means seeking a balance, and then it means we need to deliver. We need to act. This is why I prefer the language of experimentation when our various committees and ministries in our church family make decisions or have new ideas. We need to be free to try things out, even to fail at them, because that is one helpful way we can learn.
So how about you? We heard a variety of proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:8. Do you need to let go of perfectionism? Do you need to deal with sexual temptation? Pursue the wisdom that is found in living God’s way.
Do you feel you need to be perfect? Do you look around your life, find it is less than perfect and feel like a failure? You’re not alone. For many of us, life feels like this, even if a little bit. And I’m right there with you. I see various ways my house or property isn’t perfect. I see how my vehicles aren’t perfect. I see how my financial situation isn’t perfect. I could go on and on, whether it is about body image, work on my dissertation, the church, parenting, etc. The result is that it is easy to feel failure creeping in all over. Know what I mean? If so there is hope.
As the Teacher continues teaching proverbs about how to navigate our complex world, he has help for those of us who feel like failures. Look at Ecclesiastes 7:27-8:1.
Here is Dorsey’s Translation: “27 But regarding perfection, this is what I have found, says the Teacher. After considering one thing after another, 28 I realized I could not find what I was seeking. I have not found one perfectly righteous man among a thousand, nor have I found a perfectly righteous woman among them. 29 What I found instead is this: God created mankind perfectly righteous and upright, but human beings have developed a multitude of ways to pervert God’s good design. 8:1 Who is the wise person who understands such things? Such understanding will brighten his face with joy.”
The Teacher is back with another ironic proverb about perfection. Perfectionism is impossible for us to attain, and yet at the same time, we are actually pretty good at being unrighteous. Do you see the irony there? The way of life that is arguably the best way, namely the pursuit of perfection, is impossible for us, but the way of life that is definitely the wrong way, namely the pursuit of evil, well, we’re really good at it. So what do we do with this ironic reality about humanity?
It is wise, and will be bring us joy, if we can admit this. Is the Teacher saying it is okay that we are unrighteous and imperfect? Is he saying that we should just pursue sin and wickedness? Of course not. He already said we should pursue wisdom and obey God. What he is saying is that there is a great freedom in not having to be perfect. You and I don’t have to be perfect. If we don’t have to be perfect, then what should we do? The Teacher will try to answer that question in the next post.
In addition to avoiding perfectionism, the Teacher has an important clarification that some of you might have already had cross your minds. And that is this thought: If we don’t have to be perfect, then we can make our own rules. We could think, “I no longer have to worry about traffic laws, and tax laws, and Covid restrictions, because, hey, the Bible says I don’t have to be perfect.” If we thought that, we would be wrong.
Well, let’s read 8:2-5a. Dorsey’s Translation: “2 Obey the king, as you have sworn by oath to do. 3 Do not be quick to walk out of his presence, and do not join in a bad cause, for he can do whatever he pleases. 4 The king’s word is authoritative. Who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm.”
See the Proverb here: obey the king. We don’t have a king like Israel did when this was likely written, but the principle is easily transferable. Obey the governing authorities.
If your local township imposes a storm water fee, you pay it. If you don’t like it, there is an appeals process, and you follow it.
If your teacher says, no texting in class, you keep your phone away in class.
If your boss says, you have to wear a tie, wear a tie.
Obey the authorities. Notice how the Teacher expands on the proverb. What he is saying is this: if you obey the governing authorities, life will almost always go better for you. If you don’t obey, the authorities will crack down on you, and it will be painful.
But what if the authorities are corrupt or asking you to do something wrong? This is where proverbs show their limitations. Proverbs are not true in every single situation. If an authority is being corrupt, or unjust, or asking you to participate in something that goes against the will of God, then the proverb no longer applies, because there is a higher standard that overrules the proverb, and that God’s standard. In those situations, then, we follow God’s way, and we practice civil disobedience, even if means we will pay unjust consequences up to and including the loss of our lives.
This has been illustrated for us so often this year. Many people in our culture have experienced the injustice of the governing authorities, as they have been treated unfairly. This is at the heart of the movement for racial justice that we see in our land. I know it is messy. Too often one injustice leads to a response of another injustice. The shooting of an unarmed innocent man leads to setting buildings on fire, destroying cars, and stealing items. Therefore the civil disobedience we advocate is non-violent resistance.
 Dorsey points out that the Hebrew omits “not.”
It’s probably very familiar: you overhear a co-worker in the break room talking about you, or you peek over a family member’s shoulder and read their text messages, or the church grapevine gets back to you. Through one of these, you learn something negative someone said about us. You are embarrassed, hurt, and angry. The raw materials for destruction to relationships.
The Teacher continues giving us proverbs that can help us make sense of our complex world, and in the next section he begins by talking about how to handle hurtful gossip. Look at Ecclesiastes 7, verses 20-22.
Dorsey’s Translation: “20 Remember, there is no one on earth who is perfectly righteous, who only does what is right, and never sins. 21 So do not take to heart every word that people say; do not listen too carefully when you overhear your servant saying something bad about you. 22 For you know in your heart that you yourself have spoken ill of others many times.”
Verse 20 reminds us of the truth that all humans sin. That is not meant to be discouraging or depressing, but instead a true depiction of reality. Therefore, the reality of our own sinfulness should cause us to view ourselves properly, to have a humble estimation of ourselves. That kind of teachable viewpoint of oneself is exactly what the Teacher is getting at in verses 21-22. He creates a real-life scenario that is so common. In his day, it was a master of a house that overhears his servant saying something negative about himself.
Yet the Teacher’s advice is surprising! Basically he says, “Don’t let it get you upset.” Why? Because you’ve done the same thing to others. There is none righteous, no not one. So don’t get offended at someone talking behind your back, when you know you do it too.
There’s a much better way to handle things. The Teacher doesn’t mention this, but I think it is in line with the heart of his teaching. The better way is Love. When someone gossips about you, and you find out about it. Instead of thinking about how much you can’t stand that person, ask yourself, “What would love do?” Love wouldn’t, by the way, just ignore the gossip. Yes, “love covers over a multitude of sins,” which means that we allow love to guide us, but there is a way to “speak the truth in love.” Too often, though, gossip begets gossip. When we hear that someone has been gossiping about us, we can be so quick, and feel justified, to gossip about that person. Instead we should ask, “Even though they have hurt me, how can I love them?”
And so the Teacher concludes in verses 23-24 that perfectionism is impossible and thus we should abandon our pursuit of it. Dorsey’s Translation: “23 I evaluated all this with wisdom. I realized that even though I wanted to be perfectly wise, it was beyond me; 24 it was beyond my reach and too deep for me to fathom.”
So while the Teacher has spent a lot of space teaching the proverb: avoid perfectionism, he is not done sharing proverbs. Let’s read verses 25-26 to see if we can find more.
Dorsey’s Translation: “25 I had investigated and explored the nature of wisdom and logic to discover why wickedness is foolish, and why folly is irrational. 26 I realized that this woman Folly is more bitter than death. She is a snare, her heart is a trap, and her hands are fetters. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner will be ensnared by her.”
The proverb here? Avoid folly, please God. Dorsey suggests that “this verse might be speaking of the woman who is a seductress.” See that in verse 26. The Teacher might be speaking symbolically about folly, saying that folly is like a seductress, and the wise thing to do, by far, is to steer clear of any folly. It could just as well be a man who is attempting to seduce a woman. The principle is “stay away from that which tempts you to wickedness.” Yes, sexual temptation is mainly in view here. In our culture we know what that looks like in its many forms online or in person. We pursue wisdom when we work hard to flee temptation.
The teacher uses the image of a trap, and he says there are two ways people respond to the trap of folly. The sinner allows themselves to be ensnared, and the man who pleases God escapes. Don’t focus on the labels, “Sinner” vs. “God-pleaser.” Instead, focus on the action. Which is your life more like? Are you allowing yourself to be trapped? Or are you escaping? What I mean by that is, do you indulge in sexual temptation, or are you turning away from it?
Clearly, wisdom is a life that turns from temptation. I’m not saying that it is easy. We live in a sexualized society, and we can be bombarded with sexual images, to the point where they can start to seem normal. Let’s remember that the Teacher is right calling them folly. The sexual ethic of God is very different from the sexual ethic of the world. I will admit that it is very hard to know where to draw the line. What kinds of media can allow into my mind? Into my house? What kind of clothing should I wear?
Over the years I have had people from our church family suggest to me that I should respond to particular clothing styles people are wearing to worship services. My response has been the same, “Do you want the church to have a clothing checker team in the lobby, and if people come to worship service breaking our clothing rules, we will hand them a set of acceptable clothing and tell to go change or leave?” No! We don’t want that.
We entrust that people will make their clothing choices before the Lord and thus their selections will be appropriate, considering their relationships in the church family. That means there will be differences of opinion about what is appropriate for gathered worship. This is one passage of Scripture among many that can help guide us. A principle based on the Teacher’s proverb could be: When you make clothing selections for worship attire, avoid what would be considered seductive. Also consider how this could apply to the people who think the other person is wearing clothing that is potentially inappropriate. Here is a principle for those people: When you are interacting with those who are in attendance in worship, avoid what would be considered inappropriate language about people’s appearance, as well as avoiding looking at them suggestively. Of course, we Christians can abide by this wisdom everywhere we go. Not just in a worship service.
 Dorsey, David. Translation of Ecclesiastes. Unpublished.
In our church sanctuary, we display a large open Bible on the communion table located on the back wall of the stage. Can anyone read it from where they’re sitting? Nope. Neither can I, and I stand way closer to the Bible than the rest of the congregation. The print in the Bible is large, but even at my closer distance, and even though I wear contact lenses that give me perfect vision, there’s no way I’m reading it. Maybe if I used binoculars. That might be interesting to try! But we don’t display the open Bible because we want people to read it. Why do we have that open Bible displayed on our stage for all to see? Keep reading, and I’ll tell you. I’ll also admit to you how that open Bible engages my struggle with perfectionism.
We’re studying Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:8, which is filled with proverbs to help us make sense of and live faithfully in our perplexing world. In the previous post, we saw in verse 15 the Teacher give us an ironic proverb. Let’s keep reading, because the Teacher has a flow of thought he’s working on:
Dorsey’s Translation: “16 Do not demand of yourself perfect righteousness or perfect wisdom, because such perfectionism can destroy a person. 17 On the other hand, do not abandon yourself to evil or folly; why should you die before your time? 18 So shun both perfectionism and wickedness. The man who respects and obeys God will find the pathway between these two evils. 19 Such wisdom will give the wise person better protection than a walled city commanded by ten rulers.”
The proverb that summarizes this section? Avoid destructive perfectionism. Wisdom is found in respecting and obeying God.
His flow of thought from verse 15 to 16 is this: because the righteous die in their righteousness, don’t demand perfection of yourself, because that can kill you too! That verse is where this teaching really started resonating with me. How many of you have ever struggled with perfectionism? It can get weird sometimes, can’t it?
Remember the open Bible in our sanctuary? In reality, no one ever reads that Bible. We don’t have the Bible up there in case someone has forgotten their Bible, and they need to borrow it. We display the Bible as a symbol. It is a visible reminder that we are a people who hold high the Word of God. Here’s where my perfectionism comes out. Even though I cannot read a single word on that Bible, I can tell you exactly what it says on the page it is open to. Do you know how? Not because I have memorized it, but because every week I go up there, and I flip the page on the Bible to the exact spot we’ll be talking about in the sermon. When I preached the sermon this blog post is about, the Bible was open to Ecclesiastes 7. Does that matter? Not even a little bit. Except to those of us who are perfectionists, who might be thinking, “Oh that’s a nice touch. I get that.” But those who are not perfectionists could think, “What a waste of time.”
What does perfectionism look like for you? Could be a perfectly manicured lawn, clean car, straight picture frames, English grammar, recycling, driving the speed limit, or all of the above!
The reality is that perfectionism can get out of control. It can consume us. Including the pursuit of perfect righteousness and perfect wisdom. In other words, even the pursuit of very good things can become neurotic. We can be emotionally and physically enslaved by our perfectionism.
But there’s also the other end of the spectrum. Wickedness. Evil. Folly. The Teacher says in verse 17 that we should avoid that too, noting that it can lead to us dying before our time. That’s another proverb: When you live a foolish, wicked live, you die sooner.
So if wisdom says, “Don’t pursue perfection, and don’t pursue wickedness,” what should we do about these extremes? We should shun them! Sorry perfectionists. There is another, wiser, way. Look at verse 18.
Pursue what? Respecting and obeying God. In verse 19, the Teacher says that respecting and obeying God will lead us to the most powerful wisdom, that is like a fortress protecting us.
Are you feeling perplexed? Confused by the world we live in? If so, you are not alone. How many of you are familiar with Veggie Tales? The creator of Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer has been making some fascinating informational videos relating to racial justice in the USA. One video answers the question why Black Christians generally vote for one party and White Christians generally vote for another. Shouldn’t our Christian beliefs lead us to vote the same way? Interestingly, Black and White Christians agree on so many theological issues. But when we go to the voting booth, we overwhelming part ways. It’s perplexing. Why does it have to be so confusing?
And that is just one important issue among many. We humans see the world in so many different ways. Have you ever had that experience when you’re talking with someone or watching a news report or reading a Facebook post, and you think to yourself, “How can they, in their right mind, believe that nonsense?” It’s perplexing! Where can we find wisdom in this perplexing world?
What we are starting today is a four-week sermon mini-series on a section of Ecclesiastes that runs from chapters 7:15-10:20. If you follow the blog regularly, next week there will be no posts because we’ll have a guest speaker at Faith Church. I’ll return the following week with a quarterly current events sermon. After that I’ll continue with our study of Ecclesiastes 7:15-10:20, which Dorsey titles, “Practical Advice about Wise Living in This Perplexing World.” It is interesting to think that the Teacher, some 3,000 years ago, might have thought he lived in a perplexing world. We definitely think that our world can be perplexing, don’t we? Hopefully these four sermons on Ecclesiastes 7:25-10:20 will be a treasure trove to help us make sense of the world and help us live more faithfully in it.
This week on the blog we are studying Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:8, and what we are going to see in this section is that the Teacher includes lots of proverbs. As we read, see if you can spot the proverbs. But what is a proverb? A proverb is a short wise saying. The book of Proverbs is the epitome of this kind of literature. It is 31 chapters filled almost wall-to-wall with proverbs. There is one very important point we need to make about proverbs, as we look for them in Ecclesiastes 7 and 8. Proverbs are often defined as sayings that are always true, but the reality is that proverbs are not necessarily always true. Instead proverbs are better defined as wise sayings that are usually or often true. We cannot say that proverbs are always true because there tend to be exceptions to the rule. Let’s start our search for proverbs by reading Ecclesiastes 7:15. Please open a Bible and read that verse.
Was there a proverb in verse 15? Yes. But it is a twisted, ironic proverb. “The righteousness of the righteous man destroys him, while the wickedness of the wicked man helps him live a long life.” Both of these situations can be true, and in fact, they occur far more than we might like.
When would a righteous man be destroyed in his righteousness? It can happen when a person is killed because of their faith. The epitome of this is Jesus. He was literally a righteous man that was killed because of his righteousness. Earlier this year we studied the book of Acts, and in chapters 7 and 8 we met Stephen, who, though he was not perfectly righteous like Jesus, was a faithful follower of Jesus who was killed for clearly articulating his faith in Jesus.
Along with millions of others who have been unjustly slaughtered, Jesus and Stephen are examples of the injustice that is far too prevalent in our world. What the Teacher sees in his world, we have seen far worse in ours. I watched the World War 2 in Color episode about the Holocaust recently, and it was very, very hard to get through. Millions snuffed out. Similar genocides have happened in so many other places throughout history. I’m not saying that all those people died because of righteousness or because of their faith. Many did. What I am saying is that this proverb is ironic because the righteous are not supposed to die because they are righteous. You’d think that living a life of righteousness would lead to life, as it often does. But the Teacher is right. Righteous people do sometimes die because of their righteousness.
Likewise, there is a sick irony in the second half of verse 15. Wicked men whose lives are prolonged because of their wickedness. Think, for example, of a crime boss who gets rich via fraudulent means, or maybe a bank robber, or leaders of a drug cartel. Through their riches, gained by evil means, they are able to live a long life, get excellent health care, etc. Again, while these cases happen, and they happen far more than they should, they are not the way life is supposed to be.
So the Teacher starts us off on a dark note. Where is he going with this? I thought this was supposed to be wisdom for a complex world. Instead, he seems to start by highlighting the complexity.
Stay tuned, because the Teacher has a flow of thought, and as we follow his thinking in the rest of the posts in this five-part series, we’ll learn some very practical wisdom for navigating the complexity of our world.
 Dorsey, David. 1999. Literary Structure of the OT.
I love the encouragement of this picture. With two and a half months to go in 2020, many of us are holding out for a better life in 2021. Here in the USA, the bitter presidential election will be over. It seems that we will get beyond Covid in 2021. So does that mean, as the picture says, we just need to “hang in there”? Is having a better life just about waiting?
Or is there something we can do now?
There is a lot we can do now!
All week long, we’ve been studying the poem in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14. It is a poem comprised of seven couplets, and in this post we study the 6th and 7th. In the sixth couplet, the Teacher gives us a kind of summary “better than.” Read for yourself how the Teacher puts it in Ecclesiastes 7:11-12:
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.
Don’t see a “better than” statement in there, do you?
It’s there, in the first sentence. Still don’t see it? See the phrase, “is a good thing”? A literal translation of that phrase could be, “is a ‘gooder than’ thing.” That doesn’t work for English. Neither does, “is a ‘better than’ thing.” So translators just shorten it to the word “good,” so it reads smoothly in English. But know that it is the same word in the Hebrew as in all the previous couplets.
Why am I telling you this nuance of translating the Bible? Because I’ve been saying all along this week that the poem in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 is structured by 7 couplets, each having a “better than” statement. Even though you can’t see it in most English translations, like all the previous couplets, there is another “better than” statement here too. But what is the Teacher saying in this sixth couplet?
With this “better than,” the Teacher summarizes the larger concept that he has been illustrating in each of the previous five “better thans.” He is saying, “Here’s how to have wisdom in this life: Be prepared for your death, hear the truth about yourself, work hard with patience, control your anger.” This is very similar to what we could call the way of the Kingdom of Jesus. We Christians strive to live a different way, the way the Jesus himself lived. The way of wisdom is better than any other way to live.
And so the Teacher concludes with the seventh and final “better than,” as he connects his “better than” poem to the larger point he has been trying to make in the book of Ecclesiastes: Enjoy the good times, but remember: both good and bad times are from God. Read how the Teacher describes the “better than” life in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14:
Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.
Can’t find the “better than” in that one either, can you? It’s there. A literal translation of verse 14 says, “When you have ‘gooder than’ times, be happy.” That doesn’t work for English. Neither does, “When you have ‘better than’ times.” Like the previous couplet, most translators just shorten it to the word “good,” so it reads smoothly in English.
The Teacher is saying that we can and should be happy and joyful no matter the circumstances of our lives. In fact, the Teacher has taught us all along in Ecclesiastes that if we pursue the way of wisdom, we will experience that deep inner joy.
The Teacher reminds us that even though we cannot know the future, we don’t have to know the future to experience joy. God is who he is, and we can trust in him, following his way of wisdom. That is the better way to live.
As you review the poem, go back and skim through the blog posts starting here. Is there one of these “better than” phrases that speaks to you? Take it to the Lord, and say, “Lord, I want my life to follow your better way. Please help. Fill me Holy Spirit, transform my heart, so that your fruit of the Spirit flows through me in a new and deeper way.”
Look at the woman in the picture. What do you notice?
Longing, perhaps. Someone who is on the outside and wants to be on the inside. Frustration with life, maybe. Some who is upset enough to lean their forehead against a door. I wonder if something happened on the other side of the door that is bothering her. Is she feeling angry? There doesn’t seem to be joy radiating from her. Her posture suggests that she is discontent, wishing for something better.
This week we’ve been studying Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, a poem in which the Teacher shares very practical wisdom about how to have what he called a “better than” kind of life. In the poem there are seven couplets, each featuring a description of the “better than” life. The fourth “better than”, is found in verses Ecclesiastes 7:7-8: the final outcome or the result of a matter is better than its beginning.
Both the beginning and the ending of a journey have their own unique kinds of joy. At the beginning you’re excited to start off on a new venture. I’ve noticed at the beginning of a race, there is a lot of nervous excitement at the starting line, as you’re stretching, bouncing, waiting for the official timer’s gun to go off so the crowd of runners can begin. At that moment, you are energized, you are filled with adrenaline. The finish line is very different. You’re wiped out, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, emotionally, mentally. And yet as you cross the finish line, there is a new joy, a deeper joy, a joy of accomplishment and completion. That is a better joy. In fact, a big part of the joy we feel at the starting line is the anticipation of that greater joy at the finish.
This principle is true of more than just running in a race. This relates to a building project, a task at work, a report for a class at school. It relates to parents raising kids, seeing them graduate and get married. It relates to a sports team, to an art project, to practicing a musical instrument.
The wisdom in this is the wisdom of focusing on the goal, even if the journey is long. The Teacher is also saying that on the journey, the better way is the right way. Verse 7 illustrates two common ways people try to cut corners to get to the end faster, to avoid the hard work of the journey. They want all the joy of the beginning and the end, and they want to beat the system and avoid the travail of what can be a long middle journey. They bribe, they cheat, they manipulate, they intimidate. They know the tricks. They know if they use the right phrase, the right tone of voice, they can get what they want. The Teacher comes strongly against any underhanded method. Instead, the “better than” way, is to submit ourselves to hard work, faithful work, consistent work, which, when completed, makes the celebration even sweeter. As the Teacher says, “Patience is better than pride.”
The fifth “better than,” surprised me. He says, the “good old days” are not better than the present. Read Ecclesiastes 7:9-10. I thought for sure the Teacher would say the good old days are better. But he doesn’t. He says, “Don’t say that the good old days are better.”
That really jumped out at me because we often hear in our evangelical Christian subculture that the good old days were way better, and that parents and kids have it terrible in our day. The insinuation is that there was a time in the USA when it was better than it is now. The Teacher would respond, “Don’t say that.” Why? He simply says it is not wise to say that. What’s not wise about it?
My suspicion is that the teacher is referring to discontentment. By saying that the old days were better, we reveal a discontentment that is at work inside us. When we are discontent, we can have a negative view of society and culture around us. Examine yourself. Have you heard yourself say, “I miss the good old days when…? This world is a mess.” If so, is it possible that you’re seeing some discontentment seeping out of your heart. Pay attention to it.
Another way we show our discontentment is anger, as the Teacher mentions in verse 9. Anger can fly out of us in harsh words, in passive aggression, even in the silent treatment. Pay attention to it.
Anger is tricky. Anger can be used for good, to motivate justice, but it is such a powerful emotion that can also cause great damage. I think we see the Teacher hint at that when he says, “Do not be quickly provoked.” He could have said, “Never get provoked.” Or “Anger is always wrong.” Instead he says, “Fools let anger sit in their laps.” So we should be very cautious about anger because it is rather easy to express anger sinfully, hurtfully, to produce emotional and physical injury in another. Instead, the Teacher is suggesting the wisdom of learning to control ourselves so that when those angry feelings rise up inside us, we can observe them and interpret them before we act.
At its most basic, anger is just a message our body is sending us, saying, “Alert, Alert, be careful about the danger around you.” It could be relational danger, it could be physical danger, but most often anger arises when there has been some kind of experience where we feel our will is being crossed. To this intense emotion, the Teacher says, don’t be quick to anger. Fools are quick to anger, causing all kinds of damage in their wake. Instead, wisdom is found in self-control, putting a lasso around that anger, taming it, correctly corralling it in a healthy, productive way. For most of us that means biting our tongue, taking deep breaths, sitting on our hands, or something that helps us pause a response until we have settled down emotionally and can actually communicate in a loving way. Anger and love are not opposites. When we are settled down, rational, and calm, we can actually channel our anger toward love of another, which goes back to that truth-telling we talked about in the previous post.
So…are you feeling discontent in life? I often feel it. Do you need to make any changes to follow the Teacher’s description of a “better than” life?
I have been in a doctoral program for the last two years, and this past spring I finished my coursework and passed comprehensive exams. That means I now need to write the dissertation.
A book. I’m writing a book. And it feels like a mountain.
The first step was to write a proposal for my dissertation, and submit it to my dissertation committee. I had the first committee meeting a few weeks ago, and I needed to have the proposal in their hands a week before the meeting so they could review it. Then at the committee meeting we would discuss it.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
At that committee meeting I would hear the truth about my proposal, at least if the committee was doing its job. Each of the three members of my committee have all earned their doctorates, and some of them have been on committees like this many times before. That’s why I picked them to be on my committee. So while I knew the truth was coming, I didn’t like the thought of that. What if they hated my proposal? What if they determine I’m not academically up to it? Perhaps you know the self-doubts I’m talking about.
So I started procrastinating. I started doing anything and everything but writing that proposal. At the same time, I wanted to get the proposal done, because I hated the pressure of this burden weighing on me. It was a weird battle within me, where the “wanting to get it done” side was in a war against the “not wanting to face the truth side.” And the “not wanting to face the truth” side of me was winning. In fact, I started having more personal devotional time, not because I was hungering and thirsting after God, but because I was afraid of facing the truth about the proposal, about myself.
How many of you love to be confronted with the truth? It is not fun. The truth hurts, as the saying goes. Because the truth hurts, we can avoid it. In fact, we can become very creative and ingenious about avoiding the truth.
In this third couplet of the poem, the Teacher says that, “Listening to painful things is better than listening to foolish laughter.” You can read how he puts it in Ecclesiastes 7:5-6. The Teacher knows that humans love to bask in the warm glow of false encouragement, such as people telling us we’re amazing and great. But if this is what we hear about ourselves all the time, the Teacher calls it, “the song of fools” or the “laughter of fools.” That might sound harsh, but the reality is that there are times when each one of us needs to hear critique, feedback, and a corrective evaluation. The clear wisdom of the teacher, therefore, is that we need to be people who are humble and invite others to speak the truth to us. We need people in our lives who can confront us.
This is the difference between shepherds and prophets. Shepherds are people who come alongside and put their arm around our shoulder to encourage us. They tend to be gracious, warm and caring. And we need them in our lives. But we also need prophets.
Prophets are the people who stand in front of us and evaluate us, telling us the truth, even if it is just their interpretation of the truth about who we are. Prophets tend to be bold, confrontational. Because of that we can caricature them as if they’re just angry or opinionated, so we don’t have to listen to them. We can say, “I’ll only listen to them if they talk more respectfully to me.” Surely, the most effective prophets are the ones who speak the truth in a tone and manner that people can most easily receive. But even if they don’t speak graciously, it doesn’t let us off the hook. We still need to have a teachable posture, to receive their words, to evaluate how their view might be true, and how we might need to change.
This is what the Teacher means when he says we need to “heed the rebuke of the wise.” Do you have people in your life who speak plainly to you? Who is the prophet in your life, willing to tell you the truth about yourself? It could be a spouse, a friend, or a family member. But it might also need to be a professional, someone like a therapist, doctor, or coach that you hire to tell you the blunt, but honest, picture of who you really are.
In a sense I’ve hired my dissertation committee to tell me the truth. I didn’t get my proposal to them a week ahead our first meeting, but I did get it to them about three days in advance. Guess what? They told me the truth, and they did so with a gracious, honest mixture of both the shepherd and the prophet. I came away from the meeting encouraged, and with some assignments I had to work on to improve the proposal.
So how about you? Who is being a prophet to you? Who is your shepherd?
I like weddings more than funerals. At a wedding there is excitement and joy and dancing. At a funeral, while there is sometimes laughter remembering stories about the deceased, and while there can be joy that the person is suffering no more and is at home with the Lord, let’s face it that funerals are filled with sadness. Weddings are filled, however, with the promise of the beginning of a new family unit, with all kinds of hopeful expectation for a future. Funerals mark the end, emphasizing that a person is gone and is not coming back.
The first two “better thans” are very similar. First, thinking about the Day of Death is better than thinking of the Day of Birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2) and second, sorrow is better than laughter (7:3-4). Pause reading this post and read those two passages in your Bible.
Did you hear that? Whew. Right out of the gate, the Teacher shares dark wisdom, and I have to admit I do not like it. Celebrating death is better than celebrating birth? I want to sit down with the Teacher and say, “Wait a minute. You’ve been talking about finding joy in the Lord, and now you’re telling us that funerals are better than child dedications?” This is the kind of stuff that gives Ecclesiastes the label of the most depressing book in the Bible. Who would rather go to a house where the family just suffered a tragedy than a house where the family is throwing a celebration?
But that is precisely where the Teacher locates wisdom. As much as I disagree emotionally with the Teacher, as much as I feel within me that I would much rather go to a party than to a wake, as much as this first section of the poem is a bitter pill, I have to admit that, like a bitter pill, the Teacher’s wisdom here has the purpose of healing us. We need to hear what he has to say, which is the wisdom that we humans would do well to face the reality that we will all die.
The Teacher isn’t saying that we need to like this truth, that we need to feel good about it, but he is saying that it will be really helpful to us if we take it to heart. In other words, the reality of our mortality should give us cause to think about how we are living our lives. We so rarely think about that, because we’re too busy, or we simply find it extremely uncomfortable to think about death. At funerals, though, we can’t get away from it. At funerals we are confronted with death. At funerals we can consider, “Am I wasting my life?”
As a preacher who has officiated funerals, I always wrestle with this reality. I know I have the audience’s attention for about thirty minutes. At a funeral people are thinking about death. Because of that I know they are feeling uncomfortable. Yet, people who would almost never want to have a serious conversation about death are open to it now. Try it out with your friends, “Hey, I just wanted to talk with you about the fact that we will all die.” How would that go over? Probably not too well. At funerals it is expected, and yet even at a funeral I know people can tune me out, because talk about death is expected. The people at funerals hopefully don’t go to a lot of funerals, but they still know the drill. At a funeral, the sermon will be about death. So I wrestle with how to talk about death in such a way that people will listen.
Because the Teacher is right. We need to talk about death. His larger purpose is that we will be able to live well if we are ready for death. From a Christian perspective, Jesus’ answer to this is his repeated teaching, “Be ready.” No one knows the day, time or hour of his return, or of their death, so be ready. Live life not in fear of death, but in a perpetual state of readiness. How? By making discipleship to Jesus our first priority. By following the way of Jesus, we will always be in a state of readiness. Ignore the topic of death, and it could be possible that we are spending our lives on lesser things, or it could be that we are not ready for death. Not ready physically, spiritually, or otherwise. That’s why Jesus was often talking about it, and so should we.
Of course the Teacher didn’t know anything about Jesus. The Teacher lived hundreds or maybe thousands of years before Jesus. But the wisdom in these “better thans” is right in line with what Jesus taught, that we should focus our lives on the way of discipleship, or the way of his Kingdom.
Have you ever longed for a better world? 2020 is a good year to long for a better world, isn’t it? Or maybe I should say it is an easy year to long for a better world? But while it is easy to long for a better world, actually achieving that better world can seem impossible. Maybe “world” is too wide a scope. So let’s talk about achieving a better life or community. Those can seem more attainable.
Even at that smaller scope, fairly quickly our longing for a better life or community is put to a halt when we realize that there are many different opinions about what constitutes a better life. Who gets to decide what a better life would be? Where do we find wisdom about how to live a better life? As we continue our study through Ecclesiastes, we have arrived at chapter 7, and the Teacher discusses the concept of what a better life looks like, sharing with us practical wisdom about how to actually live a better life. Turn to Ecclesiastes 7:1-14.
Scholars tell us that this section of Ecclesiastes seems to be a matching section to 3:1-15. Remember that one? You can glance back at it, and it should be familiar. It’s the famous poem about how there is a season for everything. In the poem the Teacher illustrates this with a bunch of opposites, starting with “a time to be born, a time to die,” and finishing with “a time for war and a time for peace.” Is the Pete Seiger song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” playing in your minds right now?
Now turn back to Ecclesiastes 7:1-4. There is evidence that we have another poem here, and one that seems to match with that previous poem in chapter 3. What evidence?
First, both have 14 verses comprised of 7 couplets.
Second, both address opposites. We see both talk about Birth & Death, Laughter & Mourning, Good times & Bad times.
Obviously, though, what we read in 7:1-14 is different from the previous poem. Dorsey sees the poem in 7:1-14 as a practical application of wisdom, based on the poem in 3:1-15. For example he says, “Yes, there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die,” as we read in 3:2; but now the Teacher says, ‘The day of death is better than the day of birth’ (7:1). “Yes, there is ‘a time to be born and a time to die,” but now the Teacher says ‘it is better to go to a house of mourning that to go to a house of feasting; for death is the destiny of every person; the living should take this to heart’ (7:2).”
Do you see how the Teacher is discussing the same opposites, but he is expanding on them, talking about the real-world ramifications of the wisdom they discuss? He continues this approach in the next few verses.
“Yes, there is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh’, and Yes there is ‘a time to mourn and a time to dance’ as he said in 3:4; but now the Teacher says, ‘sorrow is better than laughter’ (7:3), ‘the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning’ (7:4), and ‘like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools’ (7:6).” So where the previous poem in chapter 3 observes the truth about life, the poem here in chapter 7 helps us think about how to actually live life in light of that truth.
Notice that the seven parts of the poem each have a “better than.” In the NIV you can see most of them fairly easily. As we’ll see there are a couple that are hard to find! The Teacher uses this word to help us contrast what he believes is wise and what is not so wise. Check back to tomorrow’s post as we begin to try to find all seven “better thans” in this poem. What we will discover is the Teacher’s wisdom about how to live a life that is “better than.”
 Dorsey, David A. 1999. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis—Malachi. Grand Rapids: Baker. Page 195.