What is Good for Man
Passage: Ecclesiastes 6:10–6:12
What is Good For Man
June 15th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. The Secret of Life
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
That is the conclusion of Shakespeare's tormented character Macbeth, in his play of the same name. That is Macbeth's appraisal of life and its meaning. In short, there is no meaning.
While you may not agree with that conclusion, it's not hard to see how someone could get to that point. Look around. Look inside yourself. There is so much in this life, about this life, that does not make sense to us.
This quest for answers, this search for meaning is not confined to artistic works as high brow as Shakespeare. For example, consider this exchange:
Homer: God, what's the meaning of life?
God: Homer, I can't tell you that.
Homer: Why not?
God: You'll find out when you die.
Homer: Oh, I can't wait that long.
God: You can't wait 6 months?
Homer: No, tell me now...
God: Oh, OK... The meaning of life is...
Just then the credits come up, ending this episode of The Simpsons and cutting us off from overhearing God's answer.
You see, wherever we turn, we find questions about life being asked, whether directly or indirectly. And everyday, you and I make decisions that point back to the answer we've accepted in regard to life's meaning.
Our choices, our desires, our priorities, all of these tell us and others what we believe about "what is good for a person while they live" in this world. Turn with me this morning to Ecclesiastes 6, verses 10-12. (page 556)
This morning we return to our study in this unique book. Along with the writer, this man we are calling the Teacher, we are asking, "What's the point? What's the point of this thing called life?"
And this short passage this morning brings us to an interesting place in the book. We find ourselves here, according to the ancient Jewish teachers, we find ourselves in the exact center of the book.
Ancient copyists included a note in the Hebrew text of the Bible that indicates, according to their verse system, there are exactly 220 verses before 6:10, and there are exactly 220 verses after 6:10.
The way I would describe this is that this passage here at the end of chapter 6 serves as a thematic "hinge" in the book of Ecclesisates, that is, it not only tells us something about where we've been, but also says something about where we're going in terms of the last half of this book.
II. The Passage: "For Who Knows..." (6:10-12)
Why don't we look together at this hinge, at chapter 6, verses 10 through 12:
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
So if in fact this is a kind of thematic hinge in the book of Ecclesiastes, what we have here this morning is a great opportunity to review what we've seen thus far in this book. Let's work through these verses and allow them to point us back to some of the main themes we've already discovered in the first six chapters of Ecclesiastes.
A. God's Sovereignty (6:10)
Look back at chapter 6, verse 10:
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he
What exactly is the Teacher affirming here? What he's saying it that those events that have already taken place, and the ones we see taking place all around us, all of them, are not the result of randomness; no, it "has already been named".
When he talks about everything having already been named, he's not simply pointing out that everything has a label. No, he's pointing out that everything has a place, a role to play in the cosmic drama that is unfolding all around us. Everything, good and bad, is part of a greater plan.
Notice he is not simply pointing this out because he thinks it's an interesting intellectual or philosophical proposition. Look at what he says in the last half of the verse: and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.
The Teacher is bringing us back to this conclusion because he wants us to accept the fact that we cannot change it, no matter how much we try to fight it, no matter how unfair we think it all is. This plan is the plan of One who is stronger than us. It is obvious what man is. The Teacher told us earlier:
As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. (3:18, 19)
As he wrote earlier, "God is in heaven and you are on earth." (5:2) Since we are mere creatures, we cannot argue about or accuse God because we don't like our lives here under the sun.
We've heard these same points made earlier in the first half of this book:
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil-this is God's gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (3:9-15)
B. Life's Vanity (6:11)
But look at what else we're reminded of; look at verse 11 of chapter 6:
11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?
Verse 11 is nothing more than another reminder that we cannot argue with God. Job learned this lesson when he tried to demand that God give him an explanation for his suffering.
But this verse also reminds of an important theme. The Teacher tells us that trying to argue with God is meaningless: "the more words, the more vanity"; in Hebrew, the more hevel. It's not vanity in terms of pride in appearance. This Hebrew word means vapor; figuratively, that which is without substance, that which is vain, empty, meaningless, pointless.
This theme of vanity or pointlessness is in fact the main them of the entire book. Remember how the book begins:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (1:2) Or as we've translated this expression: Completely pointless. Everything is pointless.
And throughout the first six chapters of this book we hear this idea restated with this kind of assessment: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ever feel like this? Ever feel like life is pointless. You try to do what's right and everything goes wrong. You try to fix one thing and something else breaks. You see others succeeding who are not playing by the rules. You see people dying who are far too young. You keep trying to fill in the gaps in your own heart and it seems new ones appear. You look around and see the unending cycle of injustice, suffering, and death. Ever feel like everything is pointless?
C. Man's Uncertainty (6:12)
It's that sentiment that leads the Teacher to his question in verse 12:
12 For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
Do you see how he's arrived at this point? If everything is predetermined by God, and our formulas for fixing everything are pointless, AND, if we cannot tell what the future hold, "what will be after us under the sun" (v. 12), that is, in this earthly existence, then how can anyone know what is good for a person while they live the few days of this pointless life? Our lives might be seen, but like a shadow, they have no real substance and thus make no real impact.
If somehow we could no what would happen to us in the future, then there's a good chance that we would make different choices in the present.
But we've already heard in the opening chapters about our blindness in terms of the future. The Teacher writes in chapter 2:
18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? (2:18, 19)
The only conclusions the Teacher has come to in the first half of the book about what might be good for us are these:
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? (3:22) (there's that uncertainty about the future)
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. (5:18)
Now, we did talk about the fact that this passage serves a hinge, which means it not only reminds us of where we've been, but also tells us something about where we're going. And in the second half of this book, the Teacher does spend more time sharing his observations about what he believes is the better path to take in terms of our lives here under the sun.
We will find in chapters 7-12, more wisdom than cynicism, more instruction than introspection. So when he asked here in 6:12, " who knows what is good for man", he will attempt to address that question.
But this limitation he has already set out in the first half of the book are always there. His prescriptions can only go so far.
III. Defining What is Good
So obviously, the first half of this book leaves us with more questions than answers, and it seems, with more despair than hope.
But that is not a bad thing. As we already mentioned, everyone is searching for answers, for meaning, and the raw realism of Ecclesiastes is meant to drive us back to what God has revealed, not simply into the "dead ends" of our observations about and interpretations of this thing we call ‘life'.
You see, our quest for answers here "under the sun" is like traveling on a foggy day, or a day when the clouds are hanging very low over the horizon. On several occasions, I've found myself driving up the I-17 to Flagstaff on a cold day when the clouds were hanging so low over the horizon that it was hard to see anything in the distance.
And if you've traveled that direction, you'll know that when you get passed Camp Verde you can usually see the San Francisco peaks to the north and northwest. I can always tell my ultimate destination because those mountains are raised up there on the horizon. They give me the perspective I need.
But on those cold, cloudy days I mentioned, you can't see the mountains in the distance. You know the road will take you there, but you simply can't get your bearings in that kind of haze.
Our lives are like that. As we struggle with feelings of pointlessness, as we experience the frustration and despair of our unanswered questions, our unsatisfied desires, and our unfulfilled agendas, we search for something raised up to get our bearings. We look for something to cling to that will help us make sense of our difficulties and decisions.
Some people have raised up reason or rationality in order to get their bearings. On one side there are those who believe reason tells us that there is no reason for anything; there is no God, and thus, no real meaning in anything. They simply try to write off our questions and sense of despair as a product of our cultural upbringing, nurtured by religion and spirituality.
On the other side are those who join reason with religion and live according to formulas derived from sacred knowledge. When reason is raised up like, the religion in question doesn't matter; this even works with the Bible. Raising up reason like this can turn Scripture simply into a technical manual, an encyclopedia where we look up information about our problems in order to solve our problems. The secret of life is to simply "follow the rules".
Others raise up, not reason, but pleasure in order to get their bearings. Yes, life is hard, but that hardness is softened by experiencing as many pleasurable things as we can. Questions can be ignored if there is something fun to do. Despair can be diverted by distraction. Tough times, painful times can be handled by whatever will take our mind off our problems; by escapism.
Still others raise up an unfounded, Pollyann-ish optimism to get them through, to make sense of it all. They think, tomorrow has to be better. Everything will work out by then. Everyone will understand me then. It just takes a little time. We just have to hold on. Things will work out. These people can tend to minimize genuine problems. They gravitate to cute little plaques that they hang over their toilets, plaques that say things like, "Tough times never last, but tough people do."
And these are just some of our human responses to the Teacher's question about our journey and our bearings: "Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life?"
Brothers and sisters, friends, there is only place where God's sovereignty, life's apparent vanity, and mankind's uncertainty are dealt with in full. There is only place where injustice, suffering, and death were all decisively addressed. There is only one reality that has been raised up in order that we can get our bearings.
The Teacher couldn't see it in his day, but another teacher could, one by the name of Paul. Listen to how he addresses the question of what is good for man in terms of living this life. Listen to how just one verse speaks to our three verses from Ecclesiastes 6:
20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
"The life I live in the body"....this life we live under the sun...this life that passes like a shadow....for Paul it is to be lived in light of the reality of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
The cross is where the predetermined plan of God comes to its climax. The cross is where life's apparent pointlessness is confronted with ultimate purpose. The cross is where our uncertainty is addressed loud and clear with the assurance of God's love.
This is why Paul can say that life right here and right now is to be lived by faith, not faith in the fact that eating, drinking, and rejoicing in our work is the best we can do, but faith in the fact that Jesus Christ has made God our best, that His life can be lived through ours.
That is what is good for man. No wonder that Paul says at the end of Galatians: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (6:14)
The cross is not about what we raise up to get our bearings. It's about what God has raised up. He raised up His Son, on a cross, then He raised him up from the dead.
The Teacher's question has been answered: For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? The answer is Jesus Christ, because only Jesus can give us the assurance that no matter what happens to us in the future, one thing is certain:
And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment-to bring all things in heaven and on earth [under the sun!] together under one head, even Christ. (Ephesians 1:9, 10)
Brothers and sisters, friends, when life does not make sense, when life is a struggle, when you feel like we're adrift, even when you are enjoying your food, your family, your toil as Ecclesiastes reminds us to do, in all of it, look to the horizon. Look, in faith, to the cross of Christ that God has raised up.
Even when you don't think you can see it, know that the road will take you there if you belong to Christ. Turn to Him. Trust Him.
We can always tell our ultimate destination because that cross was raised up. It gives us the perspective we need, doesn't it? Through God's Holy Spirit, through the Spirit of Jesus, Jesus wants to live his life through ours.
The secret of life. The meaning of life. It's THE question. But what do your daily decisions say about the answer you've accepted? Is life really about you? Or have you instead been crucified...so that your daily decisions are merely ripples from the reality of Jesus Christ as your all in all.