Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:1–7:14
July 6th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. The World's Remedies
Consider some of the following:
Number one: load up on foods rich in fructose.
Number two: take a good multivitamin.
Number three: drink plenty of water, fruit juices, or sports drinks.
Number four: Sleep!
Number five: ingest plenty of strong, black coffee.
[And] number six: (if you've got the time and money) you could try a blood transfusion.
Now you might be wondering what all of these things have in common. Well these are popular remedies for a condition that is far too common in our society: ‘the hangover'.
That's right, these are just some of the methods people have suggested for sobering up if you've consumed a little too much alcohol.
Now you're probably asking yourself, "Why is the pastor sharing with us quick tips for recovering from a hangover?" Good question.
Well, this morning, I want to remind all of us that even though the world offers us many answers in regard to this kind of sobriety, there is a far more important sobriety that all of us need and should desire, regardless of our usage or history with alcohol.
Turn with me this morning to Ecclesiastes 7:1-14.
Every other month, during the course of this year, we have been and are working together through the book of Ecclesiastes.
If you've been with us or know even a little bit about the book of Ecclesiastes, then you know that this book is a very raw and relevant record of a man's struggles to understand the meaning of life.
Throughout this book, this Teacher, as we're calling him, this Teacher is asking, "What's the point of life?" And often he has concluded, after observing the apparent contradictions of life, he's concluded that life is pointless.
A few weeks ago, we came to the end of the first half of the book. That first half concluded with the Teacher asking this question, "For who knows what is good for man while he lives...?" This morning, we begin the second half of Ecclesiastes and we discover the Teacher beginning to answer that very question.
Listen as I read from Ecclesiastes 7...
II. The Passage: "The Heart of the Wise" (7:1-14)
A. Death and Detox (7:1-6)
A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth [the house of laughter and joy].
Now, right away you may have noticed that what we have here are a series of sayings, many of them constructed with according to a "better than" formula.
For example, "A good name is BETTER THAN precious ointment [or we might translate that ‘perfume']..."
I'm sure all of us get that idea. Your reputation is a far more valuable commodity than even the finest things the world has to offer. Without a good reputation, material treasures don't mean much, do they, not in light of what matter most in this life.
But look at the last part of verse 1. What does this mean: "the day of death is better than the day of birth"?
Well I think we find the answer to that in the following verses. Notice that verses 2 and 4 make this point: a funeral is better than a party. Again, that seems to go against what most of us have been taught to believe. How many of us, if given a choice, would choose to attend a funeral instead of a fun-filled and food-filled party?
In light of these, the last half of verse 1 seems to be making a similar point. The day someone dies is better than the day a baby is born. That seems strange, since the birth is surrounded by rejoicing, but the death is surrounded by sorrow and mourning.
But verse 3 seems to go right along with this idea that a house of mourning is where the heart of the wise should be, for "Sorrow is better than laughter".
So what are we supposed conclude here? Is the Teacher just one of those sullen, gloomy, slightly disturbed individuals whose favorite color is black? Someone who for some reasons has an unhealthy obsession with death and dying?
No. Chapter one tells us that the Teacher had more wisdom than anyone around him in Jerusalem, and more than all who had come before him. These are the recommendations of a wise man, not a weirdo.
What the Teacher is trying to do here is help us sober up. This is his remedy for the stupor that all of us find ourselves in. While some of us have in the past become clouded and confused through alcohol, ALL OF US have been, and continue to be tempted to be clouded and confused by the deceitfulness of fun.
Fun. Amusement. Joking. Entertainment. Games. Recreation. The house of feasting. The house of mirth. Like alcohol, when we drink of these things in excess, we lose touch with reality. And when we crave a diet that includes only these things, we will fail to learn the most important lessons about what it means to live our life here "under the sun".
This is why the Teacher recommends his remedy to sober us up. He tells us not to avoid the house of mourning. He tells us not to fear sadness and the sorrow that surrounds death. But when we look for wisdom in a day of death we will be reminded that this is the end [the fate] of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
We are surrounded by death and decay everyday. All of us will die. Our life as we know it here will one day come to an end. And if that's true, what we do with this life, these few days that the Teacher described in 6:12, how we live in them is so important. That's why "a good name is better than precious ointment". Therefore, in this context the idea of one's reputation leads us to the idea of one's legacy.
You see, when we always opt for the house of mirth (the life of fun), that choice causes us only to think about our own good, right here, right now. But when we sober up in the face of our own death, we often begin to think about how others will remember us, about the legacy we might leave. The reality of death brings perspective.
Brothers and sisters, friends, we live in a culture that is drunk with the wine of amusement. Everywhere we look we are tempted to play, play, play. Video games. Music. Television. Movies; all things we can now have instant access to through our cell phones. We are tempted to be constantly amused: Twenty-four hour this and that. Sports. Extreme sports. Gambling. Dining, dancing, drinking, partying.
Many people experience boredom in our culture, not because life fails to offer them something, but because we've been raised on a diet of diversions and distractions.
This is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun. In the teacher's day it wasn't called a dinner party. It was a house of feasting. In the Teacher's day it wasn't called an entertainment complex. It was called a house of mirth.
Are your schedule and your pocketbook and your thought life dominated by the house of mirth? Or we could ask, how often do you stop and consider the reality of death that surrounds us. When the commercial of the starving child comes across your TV, how quickly do you change the channel? When you do go to a funeral, do you take time to consider your own mortality and what might be written on your gravestone?
Now there are many of us who would rather not hear a message like this. There are many of us who are comfortable in the house of mirth. But listen to verses 5 and 6:
5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.
We need to hear the Teacher's wisdom, because the song of fools, their laughter is, as pointless as trying to cook a pot of stew over a fire of thorn bushes. There will be plenty of noise, but nothing of substance will ever take place.
We need the kind of sobriety the Teacher is recommending here. In a culture that equates seriousness with dullness, followers of Jesus Christ must resist this influence. In fact, seven times in the New Testament we are called to a sobriety of spirit.
B. The Dangers of Being Overly Sober (7:7-12)
But is there such a thing as being too serious? Being too sober? What we go on to read here is that there are dangers when we choose to consider life with a sober spirit. The teacher describes some of these dangers in verses 7-10:
7 Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. 9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. 10 Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Sometimes, when we genuinely stop and reflect on death and sorrow, when we seriously consider the decay and injustice that so often characterizes our human condition, we are tempted to things like frustration, impatience, compromise, and reckless anger. As we see in verse 10, we can become cynical about the present and sentimentalize the past.
My maternal grandparents were like this in some sense. They're both gone now, but after my mother died in 1985, they did not try to distract themselves in the house of mirth. No, they genuinely faced the death of their daughter. But they did not face that tragedy with wisdom and patience. And because they didn't, they responded with despair and cynicism and countless "if onlys".
The Teacher tells us here that, rather than being proud and coming to a foolish conclusion about life with all its ugliness, we need to be patient, for "the end of a thing is better than its beginning" (v. 8). We need the perspective that only patience can bring. Instead of dwelling on death in despair, I wish my grandparents would have had the perspective to celebrate their family who still lived and to see how God had used my mother's death in our lives.
The conclusion? Sober up, but do so without tossing out what is good and true and beautiful about life; consider all of it; sober up without going to an extreme.
Again, we find in verses 11 and 12, as we did in verses 5 and 6, we find another affirmation of this kind of wisdom. Verse 11:
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance [or as is probably a better translation, "Wisdom is as good as an inheritance"], an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
So many of us hope for the advantage of more money, but how many of us are hoping for the advantage of more wisdom? We need this kind of wisdom, don't we? The wisdom that helps us to see things as they really are. The wisdom of a sober mind, not one clouded and confused by the world.
C. A Call to Consider (7:13, 14)
But look at where the Teacher brings us in the final verses of this section. Verses 13 and 14:
13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Just as he has often done throughout this book, the Teacher once again brings us back to the reality of God.
Now up to this point, what we've seen has been informed by man's condition and not God's nature. But here we are reminded by the Teacher that God is in charge. We are reminded that as much as we'd like to think we are in control of our destiny, no one "can make straight what [God] has made crooked". We read here about the "day of prosperity" and the "day of adversity", and the fact that "God has made one as well as the other".
But notice the Teacher's instructions here. Remember what we said about going to an extreme. Here the teacher does in fact call us to be joyful in the day of prosperity. It is good to rejoice. It is good to be glad. It is good to have fun.
But through the Teacher, God calls us to be balanced. He writes, "In the day of prosperity be joyful, AND in the day of adversity consider." Consider.
Now, I now all of us have experienced the "day of adversity". Maybe that's where you are now. But if we're being honest, how many of us respond to the day of adversity by considering? Consider?
We might respond by despairing, or worrying, or questioning, or speculating, or denying, or manipulating, or blaming, but not considering.
And look at what the Teacher calls us to consider: "...consider: God has made the one as well as the other [the day of prosperity and the day of adversity...Why?], so that man may not find out anything that will be after him."
What we have here is another call to sobriety...to sober up!
Difficult times can feel like a kind of drunkenness. Your head can feel like it's spinning. Reality can seem twisted. And you are tempted to make some very bad decisions.
But there is sobering truth that the Teacher offers us here: even our worst days are ordained by God himself. And these along with the good days, are meant to remind us that we are not in control of our destiny.
The ups and downs of life, the reality of hills and valleys, make it impossible for us to know the future, to find out anything that lies in our future.
And God has done all of this on purpose.
But why? Why does God not allow us to know the future, and why does he want us to consider our inability to do so?
Because He wants us to be humbled by the reality of our condition. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
III. The Ultimate Intervention
Are we sober enough this morning to see our true condition?
Following the course of the world will not get us there, will it? The world's agenda is to keep us drunk with distraction and diversion. Our tendency is to prefer the house of mirth to the house of mourning, isn't it?
And if were honest with ourselves this morning, then in reality, all of us can admit that no amount of time in a house of mourning, no amount of dwelling on our own mortality, no amount of thoughtful consideration of God's sovereignty over our seasons can cause us to sober up for good, to kick the habit.
Sure, we might come to our senses for a little while, we might turn over a new leaf for a time, but all of us eventually find ourselves back at that bar in the house of mirth.
So what hope can we have?
Let me read to you from another passage that, like our passage this morning, begins with the reality of death and ends with the reality of God.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
I think that describes our condition even more clearly than Ecclesiastes does. Our spiritual stupor is the result of spiritual deadness, according to the Apostle Paul. Spiritually, we are as helpless as a corpse. That's a sobering reality isn't it?
But it's not sobering enough. What we need it an intervention. Not an intervention initiated by concerned family and friends. No, we need something more powerful. Listen to the rest of Paul's words from Ephesians 2:
...Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions-it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-7)
What an amazing intervention! God, rich in mercy, has stepped in and rescued us. And what He's done is enable us to stand in the sobriety of another.
Yes, it is good to go to a house of mourning, but ultimately, we need to mourn, not simply in the face of physical death, but more so, in the face of OUR spiritual death.
To use the language of Ecclesiastes 7:3, there is only one kind of "sadness" that will make our hearts glad: sadness over our own sinful and desperate condition. Why? Because only then will we recognize our desperate need for what only God can do and has done through Jesus.
Have you been sobered by the cross of Jesus Christ, by the reality that someone gave their life for you, in order to give you the very gift you needed most, even though he deserved it the least?
Are you being sobered by that reality every day?
In the midst of a world that is drunk with diversions and distractions, with fun and feasting, with amusement and entertainment, I want to encourage you, in fact God wants to call you, to come out of the cloudiness and confusion and to see what it really means to live.
He wants us to rejoice in the sobriety, that clear-headedness, that allows us to see God as our greatest joy and Jesus Christ as our life.
Forget the endless cups of strong, black coffee. God's incomparable love is ready to wake all of us up, as only it can.
Let me pray that it will.