Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Simon Manchester presents a four-part series of messages exploring the book of Ecclesiastes. This week, Part 3: Knowing Little.
Part 3: Knowing Little
We’ve come to a section of scripture today in the book of Ecclesiastes which asks whether anything is certain, whether there is any rock that you can stand on. And the book does an excellent job of showing that an enormous amount of the world is standing on sand and desperately is in need of standing on the rock of Christ.
Listen to this brief letter which was written by a young boy, a boy called Charles Ward, as he wrote home from the battlefield to his mother, he said this,
“Dear Mother, I hope I may come home again, but life here is uncertain. Do not fear for your tired soldier boy, death has no fears for me.
My hope is still firm in Jesus. Meet us and Father in heaven. For now, I bid you a happy farewell. Your affectionate son, Charles Ward.”
I don’t know the end of the story. I read the letter, and I thought to myself, “What a tremendous combination of uncertainty in the world – which is right – and certainty in Christ – which is right.”
And the writer of Ecclesiastes is facing the same dilemma of the uncertainty of the world, but he has no certainty. He has no Bible in his hand. He’s got no light. He’s got no compass. He’s got no map. All he sees is uncertain.
It’s a good book that God has put into the bible, this book of Ecclesiastes because it shows us the great frailty and fragility of the world. Pushing us to go on a search and find the one in Jesus Christ who can make things secure and strong.
This is our third morning of four in the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a book that is dealing with what is called radical wisdom, not neat wisdom. You know, wisdom like little sayings that people put up on their bedroom wall. ‘Be kind, and the whole world will smile.’ That sort of neat wisdom. This is radical wisdom. It’s almost negative wisdom. It rattles the cage. It shows the people who fall for that kind of simplistic, shallow, sloppy thinking are going to find themselves in great difficulty and great danger. Unless they kind of wake and rethink.
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So the writer of Ecclesiastes is trying to work out how the world works under the sun. S-U-N. As if there is no God. It’s just a random world.
- Think of turning your television on with no sound and no subtitles and trying to work out what’s happening
- Think of travelling where you’ve got absolutely no ability to communicate
- Think of trying to understand a film that you’ve walked into one hour into the film. You’ll come out scratching our head
That’s what it’s a little like for the writer of Ecclesiastes.
We saw two weeks ago in Chapters 1-3, that the big question is,’What is the meaning of life? And the answer comes back if there’s no God, it’s pretty meaningless. You just run onto the stage, play your little part, and you’re gone.
We saw last week in Chapters 4-6, the big question,’Who am I doing this for, who am I serving?’ And the answer comes back, if there’s no God, your master is a tragedy. Your master is either too hard a master or too false a master or too absent a master without God.
This week, Chapter 7-9, and the big question is:
- How can I explain things?
- Where is the wisdom?
- Where’s the little page that is the explanation?
You know, I buy a product, I get a little booklet that comes with it, it explains the product. Where’s the booklet which explains the world? And the answer comes back, if there’s no God, there’s no explanation.
I hope you realise that we desperately need a script. The eyes that we’ve been given, the ears that we’ve been given, the faculties that we’ve been given cannot work out what the world is about. You cannot work out what the world is about while watching programs on nature on television. You can watch all the David Attenborough DVDs, and you’ll not be able to work out why the world is here. Or why it is so random.
The creation that we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears will not tell us the character of God. You cannot work out what God is like by watching the news in the evening. There has to be a script which unlocks and explains. Otherwise, we’re just adrift.
Wisdom and Hardship
The point of Chapter 7 is that hardship often provokes wisdom. It forces us to be thinkers. You know that’s true. And then Chapter 8 we’re going to look at wisdom and frustration. And then Chapter 9, wisdom and some answers.
So Chapter 7:2 he says this, ‘It’s better to go to a house of mourning, than to go to a house of feasting. It’s better to go to a funeral wake than it is to go to somebody’s birthday party.’
He says in v3, ‘It’s better to be sorrowful than to be laughing.’
He realises that serious things, that hard things, are better for you than jokey things. I mean, jokey things have got their place, they’re distracting, they’re entertaining, they’re fun, but they don’t help you to think deeply and they don’t help you to think long term.
“A good reputation is better than a fat bank account.”
“Your death date tells more than your birth date.”
“You learn more at a funeral than at a feast—After all, that’s where we’ll end up. We might discover something from it.”
Now again, he’s not saying that a birthday party is a bad thing. He’s only saying that a funeral is better at getting you to think than a feast. Verse 5, “You’ll get more from the rebuke of a sage than from the song and dance of fools.” Especially if it wakes you up.
The church is pretty addicted at the moment and has been for decades, to being very positive and being very encouraging. And there is a kind of a rule in the church which is that you only say positive and nice things. But the Bible says that we’re actually to correct and even rebuke one another, in love, for their good.
And we need to be good at listening to the correction and the rebuke if we want to grow up. Just as you cannot, if you’re a parent, praise your child into maturity. You know what it’s like when you deal with a child who’s only praised. So you cannot praise a believer into maturity.
A Confronting Question
John Wesley had a fascinating question that he asked people who wanted to join the Methodist churches. And one of the first questions he asked was this, “Do you desire to be told your faults?” That’s a good question, isn’t it? “Join this fellowship, and we will help you to see and to amend your faults.” I think we ought to build this into our fellowship, into our small groups.
He also says, verse 8, “That the end, is better than the beginning. There are some things that are better to patiently wait for.” And then finally, verse 11, “Wisdom is good. Wisdom is protective.” Even, verse 14, the bad times comes from the same God who gives you the good times. You notice that the writer of Ecclesiastes wants to leave God out of the picture, but he can’t. He keeps remembering God. He keeps mentioning God.
Now some of these verses, I wish I had time to spend a whole sermon on some of these verses. You don’t, but I do. Some of these verses have produced great sermons.
Chapter 7:1,’The day of death is better than the day of birth.’
Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest thinkers America has ever produced, preached a sermon on this and he considered how the death of a believer is more wonderful than the birth of a believer. He came up with a whole list of reasons. He said, ‘When you’re born into the world, you come into a world of sinners. When you die as a believer, you move into the world of the righteous, the perfect. When you’re born into the world, you come, and you find your earthly father, and he’s frail, and he’s fallen. But when you die, you move face to face with your heavenly father, and he’s perfect.’
He made a long list of all the reasons of why the day of your death is better than the day of your birth. That’s worth thinking about. Then v13, ‘Who can straighten what God has made crooked?’ Thomas Boston, a few hundred years ago in America, preached a sermon called ‘The Crook in the Lot.’ The unfixable thing which God has built into your life.
Why would God do that? Why would God bring something into your life which is unfixable? And Thomas Boston said it may well be that this is to test you to see whether your faith is in Christ. Or perhaps it’s to turn your heart from empty things and dangerous things. Perhaps it will keep you from sin. Perhaps it will convict you of your sin. Perhaps it will rouse you from spiritual laziness. Perhaps it will show you more of God’s grace.
These verses are well worth meditating on.
Life is Not So Neat
I want to say to you, that the first 14 verses of Chapter 7, are the neat stuff of life. These are the sort of texts which could well go on your desk calendar. But when you get to 15 to 29, it’s not so neat. And we need the not so neat verses because life is not so neat.
Look at verse 15, I have seen everything during my [fleeting] days of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in [spite of] his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who [a]lives a long life in [spite of] his wickedness. ‘What is that about?’ Says the writer. Why does a good man finish early? And a wicked man goes into his nineties? What is that about?
Of course, we could spend hours on this. All the examples, all the illustrations. He says ‘I know that wisdom is helpful,’ v19. ‘We know that wisdom is helpful,’ but v19, who can find the key to the world?’ It just doesn’t work as a neat formula,as a neat mathematical formula. ‘Where is the rule for life?’ That’s what he’s asking.
He says in v26 to 28, that’ll make some of you sit up, he says,’I found one in a thousand men to be wise, and I found none in a thousand women to be wise.’
There’s a feisty verse to discuss over coffee this morning. I hasten to say that this could be because if Solomon is his writing and he was a great womaniser, and he claims to have had a thousand concubines, that he probably spread himself so thinly as to be a complete fool and to discover nothing. Derek Kidner says in his commentary,’If he’d narrowed his field to one woman, he might have learned something.’ Have I got out of that hole?
What I want you to see is that Ecclesiastes is saying in the second half of Chapter 7, “Please don’t come to me with your fridge magnets. Please don’t come and say to me, ‘Live well, live long. Live bad, live short’. It’s just not going to work. Life is just not like that.'” And he finishes Chapter 7 in verse 29 by saying, “There’s an even bigger problem, and that is that God made man upright at the beginning, but people are devious.” “God made man upright”, verse 29, “but he has gone in search of many schemes.”
Friends, is this not the case? Do you not find that many of your friends are as slippery as an eel when it comes to Christianity? They have a thousand ways of escaping. A ‘search of many schemes’.
So Chapter 7 says hardship may help us to think, but we’ll never get to the point where we’ve got a nice slick formula that explains the world. “Obey the king. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence”, verse 4, “A king’s word is supreme. Who can say what are you doing?”
On Obeying Authories
The first half of Chapter 8, he seems to be saying something like this, There are structures in the world which are pretty good, and you’d be a fool to fight them. Why fight the authorities that have been put into the world? They will give you a certain amount of security. You would be a fool to attack them.
Look at verse 7-8, there’s enough uncertainty in life. The future is uncertainty. The weather is uncertain. War, when will a war stop? That’s uncertain. So you might as well be wise where you can and obey the structures that are good.
From verse 9, we get the flip side, we get the radical wisdom. He says in verse 9,’What about the abuse of power? What about the hypocrite who sits on the throne? What happens when a wicked man gets a state funeral?’ verse 10, verse 11,’What happens when justice is delayed so long by the authorities that the evil doers say,’This is great, nothing’s happening, let’s do more evil?’
He says in verse 14, I know in the long term that God will deal with the issues, but what about the short term? Why is the world so weird in the short term?’ We get very emotional and upset, don’t we, when bad things happen to good people.
Somebody’s written a book called, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People.’ Nobody’s written the book called, ‘When Good Things Happen to Bad People.’ But that’s equally outrageous. Why does so much good happen to the bad? That’s frustrating. And Ecclesiastes, the writer, verse 15, can only conclude again, ‘Look, you might as well enjoy your life while you’ve got it.’ Just remember verse 16-17, ‘There are no slick formulas.’
Samuel Johnson, who put together the first English dictionary, or the first great English dictionary, said in the introduction this sentence, ‘As I was doing my work,’ he said, ‘I saw that one inquiry only gave occasion to another inquiry. One book leads to another book. To search was not always to find. And to pursue perfection was to chase the sun.’
Pascal, the great French philosopher, mathematician, genius, said, ‘When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and when I consider the little space that I fill, there is no reason why I should be here. Who put me here? And why did they put me here now?’
See the point of Chapter 8? There are certain structures that you can cooperate with, and they will help you to live your life pretty well, but don’t expect it to be all nice and neat. Derek Kidner says in his commentary, ‘We would like to say that wickedness digs its own grave and righteousness digs its garden, but regularly wickedness digs its garden and righteousness digs its own grave.’
Wisdom and Answers
In this chapter, he stays with very safe information that nobody can refute. Verse 1-2, he says, ‘Everybody goes to the same grave.’ Whether you’re good, whether you’re bad, whether you’re old, whether you’re young, whether you’re tall, whether you’re short, whether you’re fat, whether you’re thin. Everybody goes to the same grave.
In verses 4-6, ‘So you might as well be alive because at least if you are alive, well, you can enjoy yourself.’
And that’s what he says in verse 7-10, ‘Enjoy yourself.’ Because of verse 11-12, ‘There are no certainties.’ verse 12, ‘As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly.’
I want you to notice that the writer of Ecclesiastes who’s leaving as best he can, God out of the picture, has got a very, very negative view of death. For him, it’s the end. Of course for the Old Testament, there were little windows, little pin prick windows through death, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’
There were little windows through the grave, but it’s not until the New Testament, and Christ comes, and the resurrection takes place, and suddenly as the New Testament tells us, life and immortality have come to light.
The New Testament through Jesus puts the lights on with what’s on the other side of the grave. Without Jesus, you’re just a guesser. And you’ll notice the world is full of guesses. And the world is just absolutely thrilled to say with great authority which they don’t have what’s on the other side of the grave. But they don’t know. It’s only Jesus who’s gone through and back who is the authority. And he’s the one who tells us what is on the other side. And on the other side of the grave, we meet him. And on the other side of the grave, he says to those who’ve welcomed him, ‘Welcome’. And he says to those who’ve refused him, ‘You’re refused.’ That’s the authority that he gives us on the future.
Believers Aren’t Immune to Problems
The other thing that Ecclesiastes is struggling with is that even if you’re a believer, you don’t seem to be set free from the problems of this world. In fact, when you become a Christian, you not only face the normal issues of this world, but you also face to the opposition of the world.
I was reading about a man called Donald Peters in the United States who bought a lottery ticket on November 1st, 2008, and he won ten million dollars, which is great. Except that he died of a heart attack the day he bought the ticket. So he never found out that he got the money and he never collected the money.
So you look at that and you say to yourself, ‘That is terrible. It’s terrible.’ But then I was also reading that William Tyndale who was translating the Bible into English had worked for years and years, and finally he had his full manuscript. And he got on a ship to travel to Holland and have it printed by a printer, and the ship crashed onto rocks, and the whole manuscript was lost. And all his books were destroyed. And you think to yourself, ‘Why would God so interested in the Bible, allow something like that to happen?’ You just have to humbly hang your head at that point, don’t you? And in the words of Deuteronomy 29:29, you have to say to yourself, ‘These are secret things that belong to the Lord. But the things that are revealed are for us and our children.’ Tyndale got to work again on the manuscript, finished it, and had it printed and published.
Two Types of People in the World
Ecclesiastes is dealing with these struggles, and we come to this crucial conclusion, and I’m coming to an end so stay with me, and the conclusion is this: There are two types of people in the world.
There are those who go through life with no information except human information. They live their life either by choice or necessity with no written information from God, no Bible. They just think what they think, and they collect human stuff, and they try to do their best with what they’ve got.’ I want to tell you, friends, that if you go through this life with a very good brain, ignoring the word of God, the logical conclusion is Ecclesiastes.
But there is another type of person in the world who recognises that he or she cannot work the world out. And very humbly and gratefully takes hold of the Bible which is the record of history and what God has been doing in the world and it tells us of his character, so we know what he’s like. It tells us what he’s done in Jesus, with Jesus dying for us. So we know God loves us and takes our sin seriously and takes our salvation seriously. And has raised Jesus from the grave so that we know that there is a future. And we go through life with this light, lantern, compass, map, book in our hands and everything is changed.
Let me try and illustrate this quickly. I remember reading a wartime story which I think had been sort of published, but it involved a senior officer asking a junior officer to work with him. And the senior officer said to the junior officer, I want you to carry out your duties hour by hour, day by day, whatever you see and whatever you hear. There are going to come times,’ said the senior officer to the junior officer, ‘where you see me, and I’m going to confuse you. I may be wearing an enemy uniform. You may see me loading ammunition onto the enemy trucks. But I’m asking you to trust me because I know what I’m doing. And when we get to the end, and there is a victory, and there will be, I’ll explain everything to you.’ And the young officer decided that he would cooperate, but found it incredibly difficult.
The young officer found again and again that his credibility was being tested and that he was ready to give up serving as he’d been asked. But these were the things that kept him going. He knew that the senior officer was very dedicated to the side. The senior officer had seen his own son die in the cause. He knew the character of the senior officer. He remembered the promises of the senior officer, and he kept on doing his part by faith until there was a victory and there was an explanation.
So it is for the Christian. Here we are with so many things which our eyes and our ears completely get mystified by and yet we have in our right hand a scripture that says you can trust the God of the world. You can trust him for a good reason. His character, the giving of his son, the death of his son on the cross, the resurrection, you can trust him, and he’s given you wonderful promises to stand on.
If we’re left to ourselves, our human information is just inadequate. I understand that there was 250 billion gigabytes of digital information being transmitted in 2013 approximately. And none of those 250 billion gigabytes of information, digital information, can explain why we’re here, who owns the place, where we’re going, or what matters.
You need to get that from the God who has invaded the world in the person of Jesus and has given us a record and a script so that we have something to explain the world that we’re part of. Even a subject like death which Ecclesiastes says, ‘Well, it’s the finish.’ The Bible says it’s not the finish. It’s the beginning.
Jim Packer has a lovely phrase for death for the Christian, ‘He says the death for the Christian is their third birthday. Their first birthday is when they’re born into the world. Their second birthday is when they’re reborn. And their third birthday is when they go through the door.’ And in the words of Jim Packer, he says,’The life that awaits is better than anything we’ve experienced so far.’ Or in the words of George McDonald, ‘If we knew what God knows about death, we would clap our hands.’
Friends, Ecclesiastes has done his job, you see because he’s rattled the cage of human inadequacy. He’s shown us our insufficiency. And now in a way, he points us to Jesus so that we might go to him and find in him the promises and the proofs that we need to go through this difficult world on rock. I guess the point of this whole sermon is to say to those of you, and there are people in this church, who just probably almost certainly don’t yet belong to Christ. You’ve got to get to the point of leaving the quicksand that you’re on and calling to Christ to be saviour and Lord and standing on rock. And for those of you who belong to Christ and are following Christ, this sermon says keep going with the Bible in your right hand, interpreting the world by the scriptures, putting the Bible on as the glasses or the lenses that will help you to understand the world in which you live. Which means, of course, you need to be reading it, you need to be trusting it, you need to be obeying it because it will be the light, the lantern that will help you, as you walk through this world.
Let’s pray. Our Father, we thank you for this provocative part of your word. We thank you for provoking us to see our own inadequacy. To see the emptiness of our own minds and hearts. We thank you for provoking and pushing us to take seriously the Lord Jesus, his proofs and his promises so that we might stand on the rock forever. We ask it and thank you in his name. Amen.
- See the whole series, ‘ The Book of Ecclesiastes — A Christian Growth Series
- See more of Simon Manchester’s Christian Growth messages