ecclesiastes

Numbers 1, Ecclesiastes 11, and Psalm 114

Today’s readings are Numbers 1, Ecclesiastes 11, and Psalm 114.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 11.

The longer I live, the harder it is to understand why God allows what he allows and does what he does. Solomon learned that, too. In verse 5 he wrote, “...you cannot understand the work of God.” The next line, “the Maker of all things” is more than just a descriptive title for God. It explains why we can’t understand God’s ways. He is the Creator; anything we ever know we know only as created beings and only fragments over a short period of time.

Given that we can’t ever understand God’s works, how should we live? There are many answers to that question. The most important answer is simply, trust God’s word and do what it says because in it the author of all things has told us what to do even if it doesn’t make much sense to us.

Here in Ecclesiastes 11, however, there are some practical instructions for us based on the fact that we “cannot understand the work of God.” One of those practical instructions is, “Don’t wait for better conditions to do what you need to do. That’s what verse 4 is telling us when it says, “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.” God’s ways are unpredictable but, generally speaking, sowing and reaping are reliable so don’t try to guess what God’s going to do. Just do what you know works. Verse 6 goes on to make the same point when it says, “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”

So, on that note: is there anything you’re procrastinating about? Waiting for the stock market to go down before you start preparing for retirement? Looking for a better time to start a business, ask someone out on a date (or to marry you), or strike up a conversation about Jesus? Don’t look for better conditions; seize the moment you have and work faithfully at it.

Going further, though, Solomon commends the choice to be happy despite the unknowability and unpredictability of God’s ways. Verse 8 says, “However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all.” Verses 9-10 especially commend this for the young with the understanding that, “God will bring you into judgment.” The point, then, is to be diligent and wise but choose happiness as long as what makes you happy is within the moral will of God.

There are many dark days (v. 8b) for us while we live on earth. We should remember them but not dwell on them. People are anxious about many things but Solomon says you should “banish anxiety from your heart.” Most of the things that you fear will not happen. Bad things that you never thought to fear will happen, but all of them happen within God’s ways which are unknowable to us. If we believe his word and diligently work and live by his commands, there is more than enough to be happy about in this life. So trust God and stop worrying so much.

Leviticus 27, Ecclesiastes 10, Psalm 113

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 10:8-10.

Many of these later chapters in Ecclesiastes contain proverbs. Some are similar to those we find in the book of Proverbs; others are unique. Here in Ecclesiastes 10:8-10, we find a few proverbs related to work. Verses 8-9 tell us that virtually every job has some kind of hazard to it. Whatever you do that brings income and blessing to you and your household can also harm you if you’re not careful. I believe that is the point of these proverbs. Solomon’s point was not just to observe that occupations have dangers to them. It was to warn every worker to be careful. If you spend a lot of time around pits that you’ve dug, or stones that you’ve quarried, or logs that you’ve split, you can become indifferent to the dangers they pose to your life and health. When you stop respecting the power of these things, you can get lazy with your safety habits and possibly injure yourself. A wise person never cuts corners on safety in his work; instead, he respects the inherent power of the things he works with and is careful to do his work safely.

Verse 10 pivoted to another aspect of work. That verse reminds us that you have to work much harder with inadequate tools than you do with proper tools. The person who says, “I don’t have time to sharpen this ax; there are too many trees to cut down!” is a person who doesn’t appreciate the power of well-prepared tools. Instead, according to the third line of verse 10, “more strength is needed.” That is, if you don’t understand the power of the right tool, YOU’LL be the one applying the power with your arms. The final line in verse 10 says, “but skill will bring success,” and this line suggests that this verse is about more than just sharpening your ax. A sharpened ax is literally more effective; it is also a metaphor for a more skillful way to work.

There is no virtue in using a handsaw when a circular saw is available. There is no virtue in churning your own butter (unless you like doing that for some weird reason, or think it tastes better) when you can buy a stick or a tub inexpensively. There’s also no virtue in learning by making mistakes when you could learn from others. A wise person is one who is trying to learn how to be more effective in less time at whatever he is attempting to do. God created you with the ability to learn and with the ability to think about your work creatively and innovatively so that you can be more effective and efficient at what you do.

The Bible is a book obout God, not about time management, business best practices, or personal success. But it contains helpful information about these subjects because God cares about you and wants you to be effective and productive in addition to being honest and ethical.

Are there any areas of your work, or life in general, where you’ve been careless with safety precautions or where you’ve been working with a dull ax? Maybe it is time to stop working harder and start working smarter, just as God created you to do.

Leviticus 24, Ecclesiastes 7, Psalm 110

Today’s readings are Leviticus 24, Ecclesiastes 7, and Psalm 110.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 7:2: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” This is a verse that I usually quote when I am doing a funeral message. It tells us that it is “better” to go to a funeral than to a party.

That advice is the opposite of our instincts or our desires. Nobody would rather go to a funeral than to a party. Funerals are sad occasions; parties are fun! So why would Solomon tell us to attend a funeral rather than a party if we had a choice to make between the two of them?

The answer is in the last two lines of verse 2: “...for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” Why choose funerals over parties? Because someday you’ll be the one who is remembered at a funeral. In addition to the sadness at a funeral, I think that most people don’t like going to funerals BECAUSE it reminds us that we’ll be dead someday. Funerals foreshadow your own death. Most people don’t want to think about that but Solomon said that we should think about it.

Why? Because thinking about your death changes the way you live. After you die, your legacy is set in stone. You can’t make up for your mistakes, seek forgiveness, try to reconcile broken relationships, or receive God’s forgiveness for your sins. After you die, your eternal destiny is sealed and whatever memories people have of you are permanent.

When you think of your life in that light, it should give you some perspective to make better decisions today. If a person is usually kind and loving, they’ll likely be remembered that way. If a person is often selfish and difficult and only occasionally kind, those who know them will carry those memories.

More important than the people who remember you at your death, after death you will face God. If you’re found in Christ, God will welcome you into his presence. If you’re outside of Christ, you will pay the just penalty for your sins for eternity. And, for those of us who are in Christ, we will answer to God for what we produced with our lives. Did we strive to glorify him, to grow in faith, to spread his message of good news, to be generous to those with needs and for the advancement of his kingdom?

This life is a gift of extraordinary value. You can invest it for eternal rewards or spend it for temporary and fleeting satisfaction. Someday, sooner than we realize, probably, it will be over. How does that reality make you think about what you will do today and how you will do it?

Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, Psalm 108

Today we’re reading Leviticus 22, Ecclesiastes 5, and Psalm 108.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 5.

Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has been reporting on his experiments in lavish living. He has taken the wealth God gave him and the wisdom God gave him and invested these things in searching what the best way to live might be. Everything he tried, however, turned out to be a frustrating enigma. It satisfied for a brief time, then offered ever-diminishing returns, then emptiness.

Many people who have achieved wealth and/or success in this life have proved this to be true. Some of the most miserable people you may ever meet are the people who got everything they wanted in life. That is, if everything they wanted was something in this life, for this life. Solomon’s oft-repeated phrase, “under the sun” (for example, v. 13) indicates the human-only realm. It is a phrase that indicates “apart from God.” Apart from God, wisdom is a frustrating enigma (1:12-18, 2:12-16) pleasure is a frustrating enigma (2:1-11), work is a frustrating enigma (2:17-3:22), life itself is a frustrating enigma (4:1-3), success is a frustrating enigma (4:4-8), career success is a frustrating enigma (4:13-,16), and wealth is a frustrating enigma (5:8-17).

So did Solomon find anything worth pursuing? Yes, but... two things must be said:

  • First, he found human relationships to be something worthwhile (vv. 9-12) but more as an advantage (“a good return” - v. 9, “one can help the other up” - v. 10, etc. Still, this was one positive thing he observed.
  • Second, he “saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (3:22). But this truth is tied to another which is, “...to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil... is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (vv. 24b-26). Did you catch that? The simple things in life are satisfying only if you are a person who pleases God.

This chapter, Ecclesiastes 5, developed that thought even more. Life can be rich and fulfilling if you walk with God. So Solomon advised his readers to fear God in their worship (vv. 1-7) and be satisfied with whatever God gives them (vv. 18-20, esp. v. 19: “to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.”). Why would one person find pleasure and wealth to be a frustrating enigma while the guy in verses 18-20 can “eat... drink and find satisfaction”? Because the person in verses 18-20 walks with God. He may have “wealth and possessions” (v. 19b) but he sees them for what they are--a gift from God (v. 19a). Because his walk with God is most important, “God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (v. 20).

The book of Job taught us that suffering and trials are part of life, so don’t think that walking with God means that everything will always go smoothly and that your life will be a straight line upward. But when you survey a person’s entire life, Solomon’s conclusion was that a person who walks with God will find the simple things in life satisfying because he finds his joy in God.

How about it? Do you find life to be frustratingly enigmatic? If so, it might be that your walk with God includes a season of suffering for now but it might also be that you’re looking to life “under the sun” for satisfaction instead of looking for life “in the Son” by walking with him daily. If Solomon of all people couldn’t find satisfaction under the sun with all the resources he had at his disposal, we would do well to take his advice and focus on our walk with God. He is the source of true satisfaction.

Numbers 2, Psalm 36, Ecclesiastes 12, Philemon

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Numbers 2, Psalm 36, Ecclesiastes 12, Philemon. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read Ecclesiastes 12.

I haven’t written much about the book of Ecclesiastes as we’ve been reading it together, but I think it is an important contribution to the Old Testament. Solomon, the author, has had the time, money, and wisdom to spend on trying to find the best possible life. Most of the first six chapters described the various ways people seek to find meaning in life. Solomon tried them and found them to be meaningless—a word that probably means something more like “a frustrating enigma” than totally empty of any meaning at all. In other words, he found some value in these things, but far less of a payoff in each than what each seemed to promise. These disappointing approaches to life were:

  • wisdom (1:12-18)
  • pleasure & possessions (2:1-11)
  • wisdom & folly (2:12-16)
  • achievement through hard work (2:17-26)
  • advancement (4:13-16)
  • wealth (5:8-6:12).

Interspersed within these were exhortations such as

  • to enjoy life (2:24-3:22)
  • to realize that injustice is an unfortunate fact of life (4:1-4)
  • to build relationships (4:5-12)
  • to worship God carefully with reverence (5:1-7)

Then, beginning in Ecclesiastes 7, we have a series of proverbs on wise living that runs through 11:10. Here in chapter 12, Solomon begins to sum up his experience and bring the book to a close. Chapter 12 opens with a command to remember God, the creator, while you are young (v. 1a). Verses 2-8 explain why it is important to focus your life on God while you are young, but what he says in these verses has been understood in a couple of different ways:

  1. One approach to 12:1a-8 is called the “allegory of old age.” This interpretation sees every image as describing a body that is breaking down as it gets older. For instance “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark” is a description of an older person’s failing vision. And “the grinders cease because they are few” is a poetic way of talking about the fact that a person’s teeth are falling out. Each line in this poem, then, describes a body part that is declining in performance as a person gets older.
  2. A second approach is to see this as describing the end of life and the onset of death through the metaphor of a storm. In this interpretation, “the sun and the light” etc. growing dark is describing the approach of the storm. Likewise “the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades” because people see the storm coming and are seeking shelter before it arrives.

Both of these interpretations have some weaknesses, but the second of the two seems to explain the passage best to me. Regardless, both of them are leading toward the inevitable of approach of death. The end of verse 5 demonstrates this when it says, “Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.” It may come slowly and agonizingly like the long decline of old age or it might come--no matter what age you are--fairly quickly like a rapidly moving storm front. Regardless, the point of the passage is that you should not wait to seek God until you are near death. All the godless approaches to life that Solomon tried were frustratingly enigmatic, so none of them will give you the satisfaction you think they will. If you think you should live for pleasure while you’re young then turn to God when you get older, you’ll find that the pleasure you seek is unsatisfying anyway and death will descend on you so quickly that it is too late to do anything differently with the few days of life you have left. 

This truth is one that we should reflect on for ourselves and urge on those who are younger. We all have a tendency to think that there is plenty of time left for us, so people can and will get serious about God as they get older, more mature, and wiser. But the truth is that as you get older you tend to get more set in your ways. Instead of turning to God because you’ve found every other approach to life unsatisfying, older people who have lived apart from God just tend to become cynical and jaded, not worshipful and godly. Solomon’s advice, then, is found in verse 13: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” There are many frustrating, enigmatic problems that come with living in this life. We all wish we could solve the riddle of why things that should make us happy leave us feeling, at best, disappointed and, at worst, miserable. But it is foolish to waste our lives trying to disprove Solomon’s teaching. Instead, to make the best of the life God has given you, follow his ways in faith and let him be the judge of all things (12:14). Whether you are young or old, there is no sense in waiting until you get older to serve God. The fun you think you have pursuing your own life will not be satisfying and death will close in on you faster than you can possibly imagine. So, follow God’s ways and trust him to provide the joys and satisfactions that the righteous enjoy. This is the secret of life.

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.

Leviticus 23, Psalm 30, Ecclesiastes 6, 2 Timothy 2

If you’re following the schedule, you should read these chapters today: Leviticus 23, Psalm 30, Ecclesiastes 6, 2 Timothy 2. Click on any of those references to see all the passages in one long page on BibleGateway. If you can't do all the readings today, read Ecclesiastes 6.

This lifetime on earth offers us some incredible experiences. If life goes well, a person will be born into a loving family, have everything he or she needs to live, get an education, find a mate who will open a new dimension of love, have children who will open yet another dimension of love, possibly find a fulfilling career or, at the very least, one that will provide for a stable family life.
In addition to these blessings, many people will find friends to share experiences with, will enjoy watching many beautiful sunrises and sunsets, will hear music that enthralls them, will know what it feels like to win a tough game against a really good opponent, will taste food that they will never forget, and travel to places which will always be special in their memories. 

That’s if all goes well….

However, it doesn’t always work that way, does it? Some people are born blind and will never see that beautiful sunset. Some are born to broken homes or have parents who will abuse them. Some grow up in excruciating poverty. Some will never learn to read. Some will never know what it feels like to be in love. Some will die in a tragic accident or through some kind of physical illness and will never live to see their kids grow up. Some people will experience a heartbreaking combination of these events; they will wonder why life has been so cruel to them.

Then there are others who do experience success in life but can never enjoy the rewards of that success. That seems to be the group Solomon has in mind here in Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. They succeed at life (“they lack nothing their hearts desire”) but die young before they can enjoy their success or they miss out in some other way. In the words of verse 2c: “….God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead.” In verses 3-6 Solomon says that someone who never made it out of the womb alive is better than the person who attained what they want in life but never could enjoy the results. This is just one of Solomon’s many laments in this book—a still frame in an unhappy video about the problems of life. These problems are caused by the curse that comes from sin. Whether a person suffers from poverty, or lives life alone and unloved, or has a broken body, or dies young, or is wealthy but unhealthy, nobody gets everything out of life that life could potentially offer to us all. The problem is not that God creates a cruel world that promises us pleasure but sticks us with pain instead. The problem is that the beautiful world that God created has been broken by sin. Because humanity defied God’s instruction, we all find heartache and sorrow and pain and lack of fulfillment in this life to some degree or others. Some of us feel it so intensely that the only word that can describe life is “unfair.” 

This reality is immune to pious platitudes, quick fixes, or positive thinking. Even when someone’s life goes spectacularly well, there are always regrets, disappointments, grief, and sorrow.

Ecclesiastes is a long meditation on the frustrating enigmas of life. Instead of telling us that “it’ll be OK eventually,” he will later tell us just to fear God, obey his word, and enjoy what we can. It’s good advice and we’d all do well to obey it. But we can’t even do that; the capacity to just “fear God and obey his word” was lost by humanity on the same day we lost paradise.

This is why Christ gives us such hope. Although he has not chosen, yet, to fix this broken and painful reality, he has shown us his love and promised us a better life—eternal life, if we trust him and follow him no matter what. If you’re discouraged today by circumstances around you, remember that your frustration is the symptom of a world that is suffering under sin and its consequences. Instead of bemoaning what is lost, look to Christ in faith. In him is the promise of life in his kingdom that will be perfection itself and will never end. 

Now for your thoughts: What stood out in your Bible reading for today? What questions do you have about what you read? What are your thoughts about what I wrote above? Post them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. And, feel free to answer and interact with the questions and comments of others. Have a great day; we'll talk scripture again tomorrow.