Maneuvering Through Life’s Mixed Messages
The world “East of Eden” preaches a multitude of messages, each of which try to sway the soul of man into being governed by notions that are directly opposed to the truths of Scripture. “Once-Eden’s” sermons are always selling us something. But all its offerings are nonfulfilling, futile, and vain. They never accomplish what they promise to do. The end of all the world’s consumption is always weariness. While the world advertises amusements and diversions that guarantee gratification, it is soon found that these guarantees are hollow, leaving you empty and discontented.
The messages of the world mixed with the message of grace can often confuse us into settling for things less than the truth. As such, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes deals directly with some of life’s mixed messages in chapters 7 and 10, exposing our misguided assumptions about life “under the sun.”
A truth about lucre.
One of the pervading messages by which the world operates is, “Get rich or die trying.” “Once-Eden” urges us to continually pursue wealth and success in the hopes of finding soul-peace. The dollar has become the holy grail of our age, with a functional ideology that the bigger the bank account, the smaller life’s woes become. But, as was observed in the previous chapter, no measure of financial prosperity ever fills man’s belly. “All of a person’s labor is for his stomach, yet the appetite is never satisfied.” (Eccl. 6:7) Mankind’s “enough” is never enough.
Juxtaposed against the message of “Get rich or die trying” are the words of God, which declare, “I’m worth more than money.” The Teacher affirms this message in the first phrase, where he says, “A good name is better than fine perfume.” (Eccl. 7:1) “Fine perfume” or “precious ointment,” as it’s elsewhere translated, is at once a literal and figurative symbol for luxury and opulence. In a word: Personal integrity is better than all the assets you could ever obtain “under the sun.” “A good name is to be chosen over great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold.” (Prov. 22:1) The philosophy of “once-Eden” goads us into trading our reputations for riches and lives of leisure. But God’s Word assures us that our testimony has more value than all the wealth of the world combined. Your life is worth more than what the world can offer.
A truth about death.
There’s an old illustration that’s brought to mind in the Teacher’s next exhortation as he begins to speak in oddly positive ways about death. (Eccl. 7:1–6) Many old preachers used to say that you’ll never see a hearse followed by a U-Haul. Notwithstanding the triteness of this illustration, the principle stands: You can’t take anything with you in the afterlife, let alone treasures and trinkets tendered “under the sun.” The Egyptian pharaohs are, of course, notorious for attempting this, filling massive crypts with all manner of material goods and assets, in the hopes that their luxurious habits would continue seamlessly in the next life. But for all their efforts, their trinkets decayed along with their bodies. For all the security and splendor it affords now, wealth offers no safeguard when death approaches. (Eccl. 7:12) And while all the abundance of silver in “once-Eden” does nothing to protect you from the impending judgment at the End of Days, the smallest measure of faith in divine grace guarantees you eternity. (Prov. 10:2) It is for this reason that our Teacher writes, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2) He’s using the reality of death as a rebuke of how we spend our lives. He’s writing in candid language about exactly what dying can teach those who are alive.
To be sure, funerals are not more fun than parties, but they are more significant. (Eccl. 7:4) Death itself, then, operates as a divine teacher, schooling us away from the carless frivolity and festivity of the world, and showing us the supreme value of life itself. “Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.” (Eccl. 7:3) What at first appears to be a severely myopic perspective on life — “The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth” (Eccl. 7:1) — is actually a hopeful reminder of the resurrection. For the Christian, then, though our faces might grieve and mourn the loss of loved ones, our hearts can rejoice in the grief-eclipsing knowledge of the One who conquered death itself. Where “once-Eden” seeks to suffocate this knowledge, the gospel preaches to us the assurance of life in death. “The advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of its owner.” (Eccl. 7:12) It is not in the “house of feasting,” but in the “house of mourning” that we’re reminded of our paradoxical hope in Jesus Christ, who triumphed by trampling the grave. Who through death brought life to the world.
A truth about labor.
Another message with which we’re often encumbered is, “Get all you can, while you can, as fast as you can.” We live in a fast-paced world where everything’s instant. Instant coffee. Instant rice. Instant entertainment. Instant results. Instant gratification. There’s a “1-minute plan” for almost anything you can imagine. I’m reminded of comedian Brian Regan’s observation regarding our incessant need for instantaneous food when he humorously deciphers the instructions for microwaving Pop Tarts.
How long does it take to toast a Pop Tart? A minute, if you want them dark? People don’t have that kind of time? Listen, if you need to zap-fry your Pop Tarts before you head out the door, you might want to loosen up your schedule.
In any case, man’s hasty pursuit of wealth and success “under the sun” often leads him down some unsavory avenues. The Teacher specifically mentions a man who resorts to extortion and bribery to procure his profits, which do nothing but reveal his own foolishness and corrupt whatever wisdom he once possessed. (Eccl. 7:7; 10:3) Pride, the mother of all rebellion, stirs us all to revolt against God’s timetable. (Eccl. 7:9; Prov. 14:17) Man’s insipid self-regard inspires both the fabrication of his own ends and the forfeiture of God’s goodness on earth.
A truth about patience.
How contrary this is to God’s message to us, which is simply, “Consider and contemplate.” “Consider the work of God, for who can straighten out what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that no one can discover anything that will come after him.” (Eccl. 7:13–14) In direct contrast with the rapidity of “once-Eden” is the deliberate pace of wisdom. The Teacher’s admonishment is for wise consideration of the “work of God.” “Consider God,” he says, “and contemplate his sovereignty.” This contemplation requires slowness, stillness, and silence. (Ps. 46:10) Therefore, don’t be overly hasty to fill your life with noise and rage.
Those who fail to give any thought to God’s involvement in our times are those who “rush to be angry,” and are constantly pining for “the former days.” (Eccl. 7:9–10) The wisdom of God, however, enables us to bear all of life’s griefs with patience. “The end of a matter is better than its beginning; a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.” (Eccl. 7:8) We are limited. We don’t know what the future holds for us in the next minute, let alone the next month or the next year. (Eccl. 7:14; 10:14) And where fools are incited to outrage and revolution over the realization of their shear impotency over the times, the faithful are those who consider the works of God in all of life’s times.
Wisdom rightly understood is the knowledge and acceptance that God is God and we are not. He is limitless! His ways are infinitely better than our own. (Isa. 55:8) And, what’s more, his ways are always right. The times are in his hands, so there’s no sense in resisting them. The grace of wisdom is that which humbles us to relinquish our plans and accept the Lord’s. It’s what allows us to consider his handiwork in all of our times. Both the “day of prosperity” and the “day of adversity” come from his hand. (Eccl. 7:14; Lam. 3:38) It is the recognition of this truth that leads to true soul-peace in “once-Eden.” Calmness in the midst of all the chaos “under the sun” comes when we’re stilled and slowed by God’s sovereignty. (Eccl. 10:4) “The Divine Sovereignty — reverently acknowledged and applied,” writes Charles Bridges, “at once silences and satisfies.” (138) It is then that the whole course of our life will testify to the fact that there’s not one misplaced thread or any color wrongly set in the tapestry of our lives. We’ll stand in wonder at the infallibly intricate intertwining of God’s grace and glory.
A truth about life.
One of the final remarks the Teacher calls our attention to is the world’s belief that “you get what you pay for.” The unsung but widely regarded system of karma drives nearly every action and reaction of man in “once-Eden.” Be good. Do good things, and good things will happen to you. Pay it forward and it’ll all come back to you. Sacrifice everything and make your dreams come true. So we’re told, at least. Our Teacher, however, saw life much differently. He saw a world that was discombobulated — that was interminably unjust and unfair.
In my futile life I have seen everything: someone righteous perishes in spite of his righteousness, and someone wicked lives long in spite of his evil . . . The fool is appointed to great heights, but the rich remain in lowly positions. I have seen slaves on horses, but princes walking on the ground like slaves. The one who digs a pit may fall into it, and the one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. The one who quarries stones may be hurt by them; the one who splits logs may be endangered by them. (Eccl. 7:15; 10:6–9)
To put it briefly, one of the only guarantees in this life “under the sun” is its enslavement to perversion. You can always count on “once-Eden” to subvert karmic sensibilities. And that’s a good thing, actually, because God doesn’t operate according to karma either. God’s message to us isn’t predicated on our levels of sacrifice or paying it forward. His scales have nothing to do with our notions of rank or position. Rather, his message to us is, “The last are first and the first are last.” (Matt. 20:16) No karma here, only grace. That’s what our Teacher was after. Indeed, that’s what we’re all after. Some semblance of harmony. Of balance. Of equilibrium. And that’s what grace is. Life according grace is balance. (Eccl. 7:16–18)
A truth about perfection.
As the Teacher reflects on his quest for wisdom, he recognizes that its true conclusion will always lie “beyond” him. “I resolved, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was beyond me,” he confesses. “What exists is beyond reach and very deep. Who can discover it?” (Eccl. 7:23–24) He endeavored to find out what true wisdom was, to explore, examine, and explain all things “under the sun.” He applied all his reasoning to discovering what mattered and what it all meant, but all he found was the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. (Eccl. 7:25) Such is the fallout for listening to the world’s mixed messages. Like a smooth talking seductress, they’ve ensnared and enslaved us. (Eccl. 7:26–28) Entertaining the notions propagated by the world’s pundits and philosophers only serves to pervert the mind and the soul to waste life itself on vain things “under the sun.” The consequence of which is unmingled and unending disappointment. This isn’t what we were made for, though. We were made for God.
Only see this: I have discovered that God made people upright, but they pursued many schemes. (Eccl. 7:29)
In the beginning, man was perfect. True Eden. True life, without any vanity. All was in balance. But man “in the exercise of his own free will became the author of his own ruin.” (Bridges, 179) The first of his “many inventions” was discontent with the happiness given to him and a fervent desire to fabricate his own. Man has completely upturned creation as a result of his “many schemes.” Where before he was made upright, he has since distorted and destroyed himself on untold folly. Mankind’s foolish schemes to reclaim for himself the peace and balance of Eden — on his own terms — are a complete perversion of God’s intended order. Grace is a return to order. Grace restores and remakes us into who we ought to be. Grace is the inbreaking of God on our exiled world to reclaim us, the exiles, and bring us back to Edenic glory and joy.
- Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009).