“Wisdom is Better” – Ecclesiastes 9:1–18
Hear now, the word of the Lord from Ecclesiastes chapter nine, starting in verse one.
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.
17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
Ecclesiastes 9:1-18, ESV
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our god endures forever. I mentioned last week that the previous week I had gone to an eye appointment. Just a normal appointment with an eye doctor to check if my vision had changed to check on general health, that sort of thing. During the course of that eye exam, I asked my doctor a question. I asked whether she would recommend whether it be a good idea for me to look into that laser vision correction surgery they offer. Now, that would be a really big deal for me because I am absolutely as blind as a bat. I don't actually know how to measure that, but I'm very blind. I can only read about this far in front of my face. I'm very, very blind and I've been using glasses or contacts since I was in the second grade. So the ability to have my vision corrected so that I could just get up in the morning and see without having to put anything on my face or in my eyes sounds like a wonderful prospect.
So I asked her and she looked again at my chart, apparently to determine my age. She said to me, here's the thing you're going to have to make a choice of what you want. She says it's possible you can do this kind of a surgery, and it will correct your ability to see a far distance, your farsightedness. That choice will come with a price. To do that, you're going to have to actually sacrifice some of your ability to see things close up. Now, remember, I still can see things close up; as long as I have the book right here, I can see it without any glasses. It's a wonderful gift to just see it right there.
Again, she looked at my age and said, you're about five years from the time at which that nearsighted, short sighted vision is going to start fading away. You're going to start needing reading glasses and bifocals to see things that you've always been able to see, but the problem is, if you get this surgery, you're going to have to sacrifice more of that than you think you will be comfortable with. Eventually that's going to even make it worse and you're going to need stronger reading glasses or even bifocals to correct what you are giving up in order to gain that farsighted vision.
Now, for me, this is a dilemma because I read a lot. I read all the time and the idea of possibly damaging or making it worse, this short sighted nearsighted vision would be a big sacrifice to me.
The reason I'm letting you into my doctor's appointment here is to tell you that I think this is the dilemma that we all face, all the time and everything we are doing. In life, we can either try to have the control, we can claim the control of the short sighted vision, or we can seek after farsighted clarity in life. Either in life, we're going to look at what's closest to us, what's near to us, and we're going to want to cling on to that or we're going to be willing to sacrifice this for a long term farsighted kind of vision.
Now, the Bible calls this farsighted vision, not to just look at what affects me today, but to look at my life in the light of eternity. The Bible calls that gift wisdom. The Bible says that we don't naturally have wisdom because we all lost it at the fall of humankind with our first parents, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We need this wisdom to be able to see off into the distance, but this wisdom will come at a cost. It will mean giving up control over the short term nearsighted goals, that maybe your eyes are fixed on this morning. You can't imagine what it would be to give up the short sighted, near sighted vision to exchange that in order for the long term, far sighted eternal wisdom of God.
Here's part of what the wisdom of God does, especially as we study this passage, it reminds us that whatever you think you have right now, even if it is not started to fade away, maybe it's like my nearsighted vision that day is coming perhaps sooner than you care to recognize. You can't cling to it. At some point the day is going to come when even the close things that you want to cling to with all your strength will fade away. Which means that maybe it's not a bad investment to go ahead and look at the long term wisdom.
What this passage is teaching us, then, is that wisdom relinquishes control and readies us for eternity. Wisdom lets go of the short term gains that we might make it relinquishes control, and it readies us for the long term vision of what wisdom helps us to see about how to prepare our lives for all of eternity. That's our big idea, Wisdom, relinquishes control and readies for eternity.
So three parts in the passage we're looking at today.
1. Relinquishing Control
2. Relishing today
3. Readying for Eternity
Now as you come to this first section in verses one through six, we're talking about relinquishing control. Again, what the preacher is asking us is, are we going to claim farsighted clarity or are we going to cling to nearsighted control? The first thing the preacher wants to tell us is that we do not have the control we think we do over the short term, over what we can see with our near sighted vision. That this is quickly fading away far more quickly than we'd like to think it is.
So the preacher says this in verse one, he says, "But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him." Now stop there for a moment, as we consider where the preacher is setting this up, where he's going to go. Now it's important to understand that this word deeds only appears here in the Old Testament, in this form at least. This word in other forms shows up all over the Old Testament. Normally, this is the word for to serve or to be a servant or a slave if it shows up in different versions. Specifically, this word is often used in relation to the gods, whether the true living God of heaven and Earth, or the false pagan gods. When you serve a god, that's another way of describing worship, to worship a god is to serve that god.
As we're going to see, this idea of worship is very close top of mind for the preacher. So I think what the preacher is saying here, and I'll make a case for this as we keep going, is that he's saying all of this I laid to heart examining it all how the righteous and the wise and their worship are in the hand of God. Your righteousness, your wisdom and your worship are in the hand of God.
Now where's he going with this? What's the issue that he's raising here? Well, this gets to the next part of verse one, "Whether it is love or hate, man does not know both are before him." Now this is a notoriously difficult sentence to interpret. There are interpretations that go in every direction. Now I'm going to give you what I think it is, and then I'm going to try to justify that based on the next verse that we'll look at in just a moment. What I think the preacher is saying is that we cannot manipulate blessings from God, by our deeds, by our actions or by our worship, by righteousness, by our wisdom or our worship. So he's saying all of our righteousness, all of our wisdom, all of our worship, it's in the hand of God. When it talks about whether it's love or hate, we're talking about the response that we get back from God.
What should we expect from God when we order our righteousness or our wisdom or our worship? Can you give to God something and expect infallibly in my life right now I'm going to get something back from him? He says it's kind of a pagan way of looking at God. That if I offer the right God, the right act of worship at the right time, that I can guarantee success in my business or in my good fortunes in my agriculture or in my marriage or whatever I need are in battle. I just have to offer the right worship to the right god at the right time, and I can control the outcome that I'm going to get. The preacher says it's not that simple. You cannot manipulate God to get blessings that you want from him to control your life in the short term.
Now, here's why I think this is what the preacher is saying look at verse two. He says, "It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice." There's that worship idea. Whether you worship well or you don't worship well, the same thing comes to everyone as the good one is so is the sinner. He who swears is, is he who shuns an oath. You cannot offer the right act of worship or the right righteousness or the right obedience or the right good deed to God at the right time and expect that you will be able to just select what you want, like a vending machine and select what you want and get that directly from God. It does not work the same way.
The preacher acknowledges this is a very difficult reality for us. In verse three, he says "This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all." He's talking about death. We all end up dying. Also, "The hearts of the children of men are full of evil and madness is in their hearts while they live and after that, they go to the dead." He says the fact that we can't control our lives, the fact that the short term vision is not as much in our control as we like to think it would be. That we can't offer the right worship to the right God at the right time and get what we want out of life. He says this is a vexing thing. It's an evil under the sun. Because of this, many people turn to full out evil, the hearts of the children of men are full of evil. It inclines people don't want to say, well, if God isn't going to get me what I want, I am going to get what I want by any means possible.
The preacher says not so fast, just because you cannot control life in the short term doesn't mean that you should have no perspective on life at all. This worry says you've got to sacrifice that short term vision in order to gain a longer term vision into eternity. So he says in verse four, "But he who is joined with all living, has hope. For a living dog is better than a dead lion." Now to understand what he's saying about the dog and the lion understand dogs were not cute, wonderful pets like we have them today. Dogs were scavengers that were just the lowest of the low out and about and vicious creatures. Dogs were not very much liked in the ancient world. Whereas a lion has a similar kind of idea that we would think about today. A lion was the king of the beasts. But it's better to be a living scavenger than a dead king of the beasts.
Well, why is this? Well, in verse five, he says this, "For the living know that they will die." That's a surprising answer. Why is it better to be alive than to be dead, because if you're alive, you know that you're going to eventually die. The idea is that you can adjust your life accordingly, not with just the short term in view, but with the long term eternity in view.
For the living know they will die, verse five and six, "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun." Those who are already dead have no more ability to redirect their lives, to live their lives with a view toward eternity. What's done is done and whatever reward they have received for whatever they have done in this life, they've received it in full.
What the preacher is telling us is that the purpose of this life is not to secure blessings in this life. Blessings that are here today and gone tomorrow. If they haven't started fading away, they will very soon. The purpose of this life is to live with a longer vision, a vision for eternity, to seek, to pursue blessings in the life to come. In order to prepare for eternity, what the preacher is saying is we must relinquish control over this life into the hand of God. Everything we have is in the hand of God, even if we don't know what it's going to bring to us in this life.
This week, a couple of nights ago, my wife was with our children in the backyard, while I was inside cleaning up and doing dishes after dinner. The children were able to all pick a piece of candy and they were able to take it outside as they were playing in the backyard and enjoying their candy.
My two year old in one fist that was clutching his bag of Reese's Pieces. Now everybody loves Reese's Pieces. Two year olds love Reese's Pieces, even E.T. loved Reese's Pieces. Everybody loves Reese's Pieces. I would cling to those things too. For whatever reason is he was playing with his Reese's Pieces clutched in one fist. He decided that he was going to take his other hand and start hanging from the monkey bars.
Now, I don't know what went into this. Allison said she didn't see it happen, but suddenly he saw that he was there hanging from the monkey bars with one hand and realized that he was in a pickle, that he had his short term pleasure in one hand, he didn't want to let go of that, but he couldn't reach up and grab, and he really couldn't keep holding on to this. He was terrified because I mean, it's not very tall off the ground, but he's not a very tall person yet. So he realized what was he going to do at this moment? He had to choose one thing or the other. Well, guess what? Time caught up with him, and he couldn't hold his grip very long and he fell to the ground. Now Allison wanted me to assure you all that he is fine, he fell about this far. When he landed, his Reese's Pieces went absolutely everywhere.
Biblical wisdom teaches us that we cannot cling to our Reese's Pieces forever. At some point, we've got to let go. As Hebrews 9:27 says, "It is appointed for a man to die once and after that comes judgment." We cannot control this life because ultimately, we cannot control God. You cannot cling tightly enough to your pleasures in this life to get what you want out of this life. Even if you do, it's fading away faster than you know. By our behavior or our worship or our righteousness or our wisdom, we cannot control God's blessings in this life because we ultimately cannot control life and death.
The only thing we can do, then the only proper course of wisdom is to instead look beyond this world and prepare for eternity. To be clear, we can't control life after death either, but wisdom helps us to see with clarity how to prepare for our long term lives for all of eternity with a far sighted vision that looks in faith to Jesus Christ.
The preacher says all of this now, but you'd think that might lead him to gloom and despair, but once again, as we've seen the few times in Ecclesiastes, he actually takes a sharp turn and leads us to where we don't expect he leads us into joy.
So the second section we see in verses seven to ten is relishing today, relinquishing control and now relishing today. Let me just read this section one more time versus seven through ten,
7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, ESV
There are two basic ideas to this section. The first is this that if you have God's approval, he talks in verse seven, God has already approved what you do. If you have this approval with God, then you are to live with joy. That's the first thing the preacher is encouraging us, live with joy. The question we need to be asking then, is how do we gain God's approval? When the previous section, you don't game God's approval by manipulating him, by trying to offer the right worship to the right God or the right time to secure his approval by what you do.
Remember, Ecclesiastes is very pretty evangelistic. It doesn't give us all the answers here, it clears away the brush and clears away the wrong answers so that we can see with clarity the answer that the rest of the Bible is pointing to. That is to say that the way you gain God's approval is by nothing that you do, but it is by receiving through faith what God has done for you through Jesus Christ. That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. If you know, Christ, if you are believing in Christ, if you are trusting in Christ, in God already approves of you.
As Michael Eaton writes in his commentary on this passage, "The believer is not struggling for acceptance. Sometimes it feels like that that God must not be satisfied or pleased with me or accepted me yet, because maybe I haven't done the right things, and so I've got to keep going. Once I receive his acceptance, then God will bless everything I do." The preacher says it doesn't work like that. You don't know what will come in this life, but what you experience in this life is not indicative necessarily of your approval of by God in the life to come. You gain approval by faith. The believer is not struggling for acceptance, he is already accepted. Michael Eaton writes, "If you are already accepted through Christ and the Bible tells us death loses its sting. Eternity is not ominous and all of life is a gift."
The second idea that the preacher gives us here is to remind us of the looming presence of death. He reminds us in verse 10, "There was no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol to which you were going." Sheol all comes up a lot in the Old Testament, it is a word that does not correlate to the New Testament idea of hell. It is not the place of eternal condemnation and judgment against the wicked who reject faith in Christ. It is rather the place of the dead, generally speaking. You might translate that as the grave, the grave.
The second idea the preacher is saying is that Sheol or the grave keeps earthly pleasures in proper perspective. The preacher saying here that earthly pleasures are fleeting, so don't make too much of them. Sheol is coming. Don't live for the short term. Live with a vision for the long term. He's also saying this, that the earthly pleasures are fleeting, so enjoy them while you can as God's gift.
After my two year old tumbled from the monkey bars and the Reese's Pieces that he's so loved were scattered all over the yard, my sweet daughter ran over to help him pick them up so that he could eat them. Yet there was dirt, but he's two, so he didn't care. Now that's a good gift. The reclaiming of what was scattered and lost to enjoy these. What the preacher is saying is if you have been reconciled to God through faith in Christ, enjoy your Reese's Pieces, go eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments always be white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life. Enjoy this life as a gift. Life is so short and if we are properly prepared with a far sighted view of eternity, we should enjoy everything that comes to us in this life as a gift.
This enjoyment cannot be dependent on nearsighted control, trying to squeeze short term gain from this world as though this were all we were living for. The enjoyment the preacher is talking about is a very different kind of enjoyment. It's the enjoyment of a life lived before the face of God without any demands upon him of trying to manipulate him or attempts to control him. It's an enjoyment that's prepared to see life move and unexpected, sometimes painful directions in the short term, because we have confidence in the goodness and the power of the hand of God in the long term.
Readying for Eternity
It's in this way by lifting our eyes from what's right in front of us this life, to the eternal perspective of wisdom in the gospel of Jesus Christ, it's by this that God readies us for eternity. That's the final section readying for eternity in verses eleven through eighteen.
In verses eleven through twelve, the preacher once again is saying we do not retain control over our lives in the short term and look at all the ways he says it in verses eleven through twelve. Life doesn't go in the way that you would expect it. "Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift." You'd expect the Swift to win. "Nor the battle to the strong", you'd expect the strong to win the battle. "Nor bread to the wise", you'd think the wise could find a way to get bread. "Nor riches to the intelligent," you'd think they'd be able to manipulate the markets to gain their riches. "Nor favor to those with knowledge", can't they use their knowledge to gain favor? Why is this, why doesn't life go as we expected? Well, the end of verse eleven, "time and chance happen to them all." Time goes by chance happenings that are not in our control but are indeed in the hand of God. All of this happens to everyone.
Then the preacher really draws this to its logical conclusion by saying in verse twelve, "For man does not know his time", the time of his death, "like fish that are taken in an evil net and like birds that are caught in the snare. So the children of man are snared at an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them." You don't have the control. You think whatever control you think you have is slipping away and fading away sooner than you think it will.
That doesn't mean that wisdom is entirely without value. The preacher says the wisdom is of great value, especially by readying us for eternity even at the cost of short term benefits and especially of short term recognition. So in verses thirteen through sixteen, the preacher gives us this story, this this parable this fable. He says, "I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me." He said there was a little city with few men in it, hear the descriptors, little city, few men. "And a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege works against it." This is a David and Goliath story. That little city with few men don't stand a chance, but against all odds we read in verse 15, "there was found in it a poor wise man." Not a rich, wise man, not a favored wise man, a poor, wise man. "And he, by his wisdom, delivered the city." So you might think this is a success story, but the preacher goes on to say, "Yet no one remembered that poor man." That poor man was entirely forgotten.
So again, does this mean that wisdom is worthless if you don't get that short term recognition, that short term gain? The preacher says not at all, verse sixteen, "But I say that wisdom is better than might." Though the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard, despite the fact that he didn't get short term recognition, wisdom is still better. He says it again, verse seventeen, "The words are the wise heard in quiet are better", there's that word again better, "better than the shouting of a ruler among fools." You think about that blithering blasting ruler who's trying to give shouts in the confusion, and it's the words of the poor, wise men and quiet that carried the day.
Then again, verse eighteen, "Wisdom is better. Wisdom is better than weapons of war." Then the preacher says one sinner destroys much good, that's where he's going, and the next chapter and Lord willing, will deal with that next week.
What the preacher is saying It is better. It is better to gain this wisdom, this far sighted clarity into eternity than to cling to nearsighted control of what's already fading away. Wisdom will benefit you in this life, but the greater benefit of wisdom is not what it can gain you now. It is the far sighted perspective when you live your life in the hands of Almighty God.
Our application than this morning is this it comes from Proverbs 3:5-6,
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding in all your ways, acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.
Now, if you've been following so far in this sermon, you probably have noticed that the preacher at times seems to be giving contradictory advice. He says, obey God, but don't imagine that your obedience will secure you any blessings. He says the living are better than the dead, but that's only because the living can then prepare for their death. He says eat, drink and be merry, but make serious preparations for eternity after you enter Sheol. He says wisdom is better than might and weapons, but he says that too will be forgotten. These sound on the surface like contradictions, but they're not. The preacher is giving us this comprehensive worldview that explains the things that we cannot explain that gets our minds around a vision of this world that is far beyond anything we could think or imagined.
The preacher is teaching us that your life and everything in this world is under God's absolute sovereign control, that's what he described in verse one as the hand of God.
All of this is in the hand of God, God's absolute sovereign, kingly almighty powerful control. This world, on the other hand, and everything in this world is sinful, vain and broken, and it's passing away. Your only hope, then in life and in death is to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. If God has indeed accepted you through Christ, then even this vain world God turns to a blessing. You don't have to work to make what's in front of you a blessing. If you have been accepted by God, then God gives you all gifts in life as a blessing for you to enjoy.
You must fully confront this fact that you have no control over your life. You just don't. As much as you like to think that you can plan around the uncertainties of life you can't. We know this intuitively, but we still try anyway, don't we? We're shocked when something happens that we don't think we deserve or that didn't fall into the parameters of our plans. The infinite wisdom of God stretches further than we want to believe all the way to the evil and the wickedness and the calamity and the suffering and the disaster of this world. Even to the point of seeing that the same kinds of things happen in this life, to the righteous and to the wicked a like, that doesn't make sense from our perspective. Yet in the wisdom of God, his wisdom is big enough to encompass even that.
So we have to decide as we look around and we see the randomness and the chaos of life, we have to either decide that life is meaningless and meaningless and chaotic and capricious, or even that the most explicable, inexplicable events in life are rather in the hands of a sovereign, wise and loving God. Either there is chaos or there is an order, even when we cannot see it.
We can either trust in the Lord with all our heart or we can lean on our own understanding. We can ultimately do both. We can either acknowledge him in all our ways or we can seek to establish our own paths. We cannot ultimately do both. We can either lay claim to the far sighted clarity that the gospel gives us or we can cling to nearsighted control over the affairs of our lives. We cannot ultimately do both.
How, though, can we trust him when nothing in her life makes sense? Last week, I talked about spiritual motion sickness again about this idea, when I when our lives are down, we're looking at something near to us, something that our eyes are fixated. When we fixate our eyes on the things that we cannot fix that are ultimately out of our control. We think that we're in control. We're staring down at like a book or something in the car, and we think we have it in control, but all around us, we can feel movement. We can feel the jostling of this world. We can feel that this world is moving around us in ways that we cannot control and in our souls. Just as sitting still and reading a book in a car can make you sick as you feel the bumps in the roads and the turns of the car, so our souls can be spiritually sick when we get this conflicting sense of whether we are in control or whether we are not in control.
The remedy for motion sickness is to set our eyes on that long term horizon and that's the remedy that the preacher is talking about here. Give up what you can control today by setting your eyes not just on the certainty of your death, but beyond death, to the fact that one day God will judge the living and the dead. The way we do this is to ground ourselves in the immovable, unshakeable fact of God's love demonstrated once for all at the cross of God's beloved son, Jesus Christ. I need no other argument. I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died and that he died from me.
When we suffer evil after living moderately good lives, we hate it. We must remember, though, that Christ suffered under the infinite horrors of hell and the full curse of God's wrath after living a perfectly righteous life. It's that Christ crucified that is the wisdom of God hidden and predestined before the ages and now revealed to all the world through the word of God and the preaching of the gospel. That, the gospel is the horizon of wisdom that will heal us, Jesus Christ and him crucified. God's wisdom is big enough to hold it all together. Can you sacrifice nearsighted control to entrust yourself to the far sighted goodness of God's hand? Wisdom relinquishes control and readies for eternity. Are you willing to give up that control in order to gain the blessings that you will never forfeit in the life to come?
Let's pray. Heavenly Father, we pray that you would give us Christ, that you would give us Jesus Christ and him crucified, his wisdom from God and sanctification and righteousness. We pray that if there are any here who have not yet given their lives to Christ, that today by your word and through the power of your Spirit, you would lead them to believe and trust upon Jesus for their salvation. To lean not on their own understanding, but in all their ways to acknowledge Christ and to let him direct their ways for their salvation. We pray this in Christ name. Amen.