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TEXT: Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:6
SUBJECT: Ecclesiastes #4: What to Do Till Jesus Comes
Other than the Bible itself, there is nothing I have studied with more pleasure and profit than Church History. To me, the story of the Church is wonderful for two reasons:
Of all the dumb things we do over and over, none is dumber or more common than setting dates for the Return of Christ. We all remember the Harold Camping debacle, but he is only the latest example of well-meaning men prying into things that have not been revealed, making a fool of himself and hurting the people who took him seriously. Has the Lord told us when He will come again? No He hasn't, and do you know why He hasn't?
Because it doesn't matter. What matters is what we do until He comes. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in the Day of Judgment. He says so in today's passage-v.17-in other places, and especially at the end of the Book-
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing, whether it is good or evil.
It is hard to live on this side of the Judgment, hard because things are not the way they're supposed to be, and try as we may, we cannot set them right-not with politics or prayer. There are great evils in the world, and though we ought to do what we can to resist them or relieve the suffering they cause, our efforts will be less than entirely successful. Will the world be a better place for you having lived in it? Maybe it will be better. But not much.
I don't know why people waste time listening to speeches or reading political science. Tune in to the local oldies station, and you'll learn more from Dean Martin in three minutes than you will from the President and all the Republicans who want to replace him-
The world still is the same,
You'll never change it
All the candidates promise 'change', but when they leave office things are pretty much the same. This is the Preacher's perspective, and what's interesting about it is this: he's part of the ruling class. If the world could be changed by royal decree, he would do it. But it cannot be; not even if the King is the wisest man who ever lived.
So how do we live in a broken world, a world that cannot be fixed by anything we can do separately or together?
This is what today's passage is about: the message is basically positive, but it's not likely to make anyone stand up and shout, Hallelujah! Hence, it is very much like life as it really is, with more joys than we deserve, but mixed with disappointment and exasperation. Thus, what our Lord told His disciples way back when He says to us today-
In patience possess your souls.
The Preacher begins with an observation, 3:16-
Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.
I saw means this is an observation, not an oracle. It is open to all, and the Preacher invites anyone to say it's not so. Of course, no one can say that-because it is so!
The place of justice is the government in general, and the courts in particular. Judges are supposed to uphold the Law, to mete out justice to everyone. The Law specifies-
You shall appoint judges.and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.
This is the way it ought to be, but the Preacher observes, 'It is not the way it is'. Judges often rule unjustly, favoring the rich and despising the poor, or punishing a stranger and giving a friend a free pass.
Injustice is bad for anyone, but it's doubly bad for a judge because he's there to rectify it. And if he doesn't, who will? Martin Luther said, The Preacher is.
Not complaining because there is wickedness in the place of justice, but because the wickedness in the place of justice cannot be corrected.
If judges are corrupt, at least clergymen are above reproach. Or are they? No, they're not, The place of righteousness, I think, is the Temple and the officers who serve there. Maybe they can't help you legally, but at least they're on your side. Except they're not.
Long before Jesus cleansed the Temple, Jeremiah charged the priests and Levites with turning it into-
A den of thieves.
Under the sun, innocent Israelites had nowhere to turn for justice or moral support. Speaking of Jerusalem, Micah 3:11 says-
Her heads judge for a bribe,
Her priests teach for pay,
And her prophets divine for money.
It would be flattering to say this was true then and there, no not any more. Flattering, but not true. On the same evidence, rich people get off and poor people go to jail. Even if it's not money per se, certain people are treated more fairly than others. In the world. And in the church. James rebukes the favoritism, but he didn't eliminate it-
For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, 'You sit here in a good place', and say to the poor man, 'You stand there or sit under my footstool.'
The world should not be this way, but it is this way. Education and laws can help a bit, but appoint the best teachers and enact the fairest rules, and.the world will be pretty much the same.
This is the Preacher's observation, and anyone who has lived awhile knows he got it right. The world is unfair, and the people called to even things out don't.
A REFLECTION ON CORRUPTION IN HIGH PLACES
Because he won't sugarcoat things, the Preacher is often called pessimistic and cynical. He isn't. Like all godly men, he abhors injustice! If he were a prophet instead of a sage, he would denounce it as Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and the others did.
But he doesn't do that. He finds his comfort in the Judgment, v.17-
God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.
The line, A time for every matter, brings us back to the poem of vv.2-8. Times are set by God, both the ordinary times of birth and death, laughing and weeping, planting and harvesting, and the Time for Judgment-
God has appointed a day when He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.
This is not an observation, but a confession of faith. The Preacher may say some uncomfortable things, but he believes God is righteous and will dole out justice to all in His own good time. The innocent will be vindicated and the guilty will be condemned.
This gives the Preacher some relief, but not too much. Yes, God will set things right in His own good time, but that time may be a long time coming! The New Testament says we're in the Last Days, but the Last Days started almost 2,000 years ago. When they'll end, only the Lord knows, but it may be millions of years.
Till then, it's more of the same-
In the place of justice, there was wickedness,
In the place of righteousness, there was wickedness.
AN IMPLIED QUESTION
The injustice of the world brings up a question, sometimes called, 'the problem of evil'. If God is in control-and He is-and if He doesn't like injustice-which He doesn't-why does He let it go on and on?
He could have saved Israel from Egypt at any time. Why did He wait so long to do it? Moses was ready to do it forty years before God was. Was He more just or compassionate than the Lord who let things go on another generation?
Why does God let evil exist and prevail? The Preacher hasn't got the whole answer, but the answer he has is true, vv.18-21-
I said in my heart with regard to the children of men that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of men and what happens to beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?
God allows men to act like animals in order to humble us. Wolves don't regret eating their prey; sharks don't feel guilty when they bite off a man's leg. And why should they? Wild animals aren't made in the Image of God and don't have consciences. But we are, and the Lord lets us mistreat one another so that we can feel how far we have fallen from His fellowship!
To make our beastliness clear, the Lord allows us to die like animals-ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Does the Preacher deny life after death? No he doesn't; he cannot do that because he has already said, we have to face God in the Judgment-and that's sure not in this world! Then what is he saying?
All go to one place.Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of a beast goes down to the earth?
Remember his vantage point. He has limited his teaching to the way things are under the sun-3:16; 4:1-or under heaven, 3:1. To the naked eye a man's death is no different than his dog's. They both get old and sick and one day they stop breathing. Then they're buried and their bodies decompose.
God lets us live like animals-and die like them too-to humble us. It is terrible that we need such extreme measures to bring us to our knees, but we do. Like the Prodigal Son, we've got to live with the pigs before we'll return to our Father.
How do we respond to a world that's upside down, where the wicked prosper and the righteous do without? There are three alternatives.
We can laugh at the world as the cynics did and do.
We can make ourselves miserable, unable to enjoy life because somebody somewhere is being mistreated.
Or, we can do what the Preacher tells us to do, v.22-
So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
The Preacher has got it right. Of course we should be grieved with an unjust world, but crying into my ice cream won't feed a hungry child on the other side of the world. Pray for suffering; help them as we can; and receive what God gives you with thankfulness.
Be thankful for your job is his particular advice, and you should be. But work is not the only gift you've been given. Be thankful for all the common pleasures of life, from life itself to health to a roof over your head, food, drink, a warm sun, a cool breeze, laughing children. The Lord gives us-
All things freely to enjoy.
Though he doesn't bring it up here, we're to be thankful for uncommon blessings as well: the Lord Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sin, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, the Hope of the Resurrection, and the Life Everlasting.
Be concerned about the underprivileged, about the people being oppressed by wicked governments or cheated by crooked employers. Of course! But don't lose the wonder and joys of life in your pursuit of a better world.
Is a 'better world' possible? No it isn't: a better world is certain! Jesus is the first citizen of that better world, but He won't be the last. United to Him through faith, we will have a place in it as surely as He will. Buoyed by this hope, the Early Church prayed as we don't very often-
Surely I come quickly;
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
This is the Preacher's message, and it's so important to him-and us-that he makes it again in the first six verses of Chapter 4.
Instead of crooked judges, he brings up unfair employers, rich men they are, who are rich on the stolen wages of the workers.
Like the Israelites in Egypt, the workers cry under their heavy burdens, but nobody does anything about it-
There is no one to comfort them.
Why not? Because the bosses have all the money and power, and nobody's got the guts to speak out against them.
Is the Preacher a Communist agitator? No, he isn't. He's a godly old man who has studied life for a very long time in many places, and says, 'This is how it is'. There's no justice in the courts, no sympathy in the Temple, and no fairness at work. The men who have the hammer are willing to use it!
Because of this, the Preacher thinks the dead are happier than the living and the unborn are happier still. This is another horizontal conclusion. Looking at life under the sun only, he reasons, the dead are no longer suffering and the unborn never suffered, and both are better than the miserable plight of the field hand.
Even the few who get out of their poverty, get out-mostly-not through ambition or industry or brains-but because of envy, a cancer on the soul.
Thus the working man is ruined either way. If stays at the bottom, he's sure to be exploited, but if he rises to the top it's through exploiting others-
This also is vanity and striving after wind.
So what do we do? Take it from the Man, or become the Man and make others take it from us? Neither. We don't give up all effort, because it is, v.5-
The fool who folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Laziness is a sin, even in a cruel and unfair world. But neither do we work ourselves to the top by becoming unfair and cruel ourselves. What we do is work hard and be content with what we have, v.6-
Better is a handful with quietness than two hands full of toil and striving after the wind.
Ecclesiastes is not for other people; it is God's Word to us. We live in the high-tech capital of the world, and this means men and women are put under pressure to perform-or else. Move up the ladder or get out, that's the ethic of many companies.
Some people cave in to the pressure, give up hope, and become loafers or excuse-makers. Others thrive on it and are consumed by their work. The Preacher calls us to something better! Godliness with contentment.
Can you be content with a handful rather than two? Yes you can because you have true riches; you have the Lord-
Let your conduct being without covetousness, and be content with what you have for He has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you'.
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