“The last word as the whole has been heard: God you shall fear and his commandments you shall keep, for this is the whole of man. For every work, God will bring into judgment along with every hidden thing — if it is good and if it is evil.”
And so, Solomon brings this book to a close with these familiar words: fear God and obey his commandments. Why shall we fear? Solomon reminds us that it is God who is in the position to judge — not man. We may act in the best of intentions by our own standards, but it is God’s standards that we will be held to in judgement: sobering, isn’t it?
In modern times, we don’t much like the notion of fear is one that is rather unpopular. Why would we fear one we love and who loves us? Does not a father often instill a sense of fear in the children? Is this not a good thing? If children do not fear their father, they will not obey his instructions and will run amok with their lives. They will behave toward the father as if he is a peer rather than as their father. Further, they will never accept his discipline or instruction. It is no different with people and God. Look at those churches and denominations that have downplayed the fear of the Lord and ask yourself, “How do these people approach God? Do they approach him as one would approach the creator of the universe and the judge of their souls or do they approach him as they might approach a longtime pal?” Which view is more consistent with the teachings of Scripture?
And so, we end our reflections on this book with a reminder that we will all stand in judgment at one point in history. Our works will not save us, but will they not show a great deal about the state of our hearts? Will they not show the things that were meaningful to us in life? Will they not show the extent of our gratitude to a God who saved us? Will these works define us as a disciple of Jesus or as a reckless and undisciplined child? May it be the former and not the latter for each of us.
“Over and above this, my son, be warned. Of the making of many books there is no end and of much study there is exhaustion of the flesh.”
For the record, Solomon is not saying that study is unfruitful, though that is sometimes how this passage is interpreted. He states that it will exhaust you physically (don’t miss the “to the flesh”). For indeed, as we have already seen in Solomon’s writings, there is profit in learning and in growing in one’s understanding so long as that learning remains in the context of the Word of God. Such is the significance of the first phrase found within this passage — do not go beyond “these things.” What are the things to which Solomon points? He is pointing toward the collected sayings and the words of the wise.
And so, there is a principle set before us — set the word of God before you, study it and dig into its depth even if it is wearisome to the flesh. The infinite depth of the word is a testimony to the fact that Scripture is of God; were it not, we would have long ceased to have anything to say about it. Yet, as it is, every generation will add to the corpus of knowledge and understanding of the inspired Word. Study these two, just do not go beyond the Canon of the Bible.
Can you study secular books then? Yes. At the same time, use the Scriptures as a lens by which you view these secular books. Use the Scriptures as a rule and guide to evaluate such things. So, be warned, though you may find yourself weary in your flesh, your mind and spirit will grow to maturity on the basis of such things…just be warned not to go outside of the collected sayings and words of the wise contained in God’s Holy Scripture.
“The words of the wise are like goads — like fixed nails are the gathered sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.”
This is perhaps one of my favorite verses in all of Ecclesiastes. Words and sayings form ideas in our lives and these ideas sometimes prod us to action (the work of a goad) and they sometimes fix us in place when we are challenged (the work of a nail). How essential these fundamental ideas are to a person in general, but especially so to a Christian. Yet, Solomon does not end with this observation. He ends with the observation that all of these words and sayings ultimately come from one Shepherd — the Good Shepherd himself, our God. Here is just one more testimony to the inspiration of Scripture — the Word of God is the testimony of one Shepherd though it was written through many individuals.
A question sometimes comes up as to the phrase, “collected sayings.” The word used here for “sayings” is בַּאַל (ba’al), which is most commonly a reference to a lord or master in the Old Testament (hence the Baals that the people worshiped). The word, though, has a pretty broad usage and we should think about it this way. Do not guiding principles essentially act as lords over our lives? Indeed, they do (and should!). And thus, to speak of them as lords or masters should not bother us too greatly.
The question we really ought to be asking, though, is which sayings? Certainly we are all filled with little proverbs and wise sayings that we have heard over the years, but do they all come from the One Shepherd? If not, they are likely not reliable and will not goad you or fix you in place when you need them to do so. One must be wise as to the source of such sayings and ensure that they indeed do come from the One true Shepherd.
“The Preacher sought to acquire words of delight and so he wrote honestly words of truth.”
“I shall not be biased toward a man nor to a man will I give flattery because I do not know how to flatter else in a moment I would be taken away by my maker.” — Elihu
Flattery may excite for a moment and lying words may inflate the ego, but truth delights not only God, our Maker, but the ears of a wise man. The bottom line is that if we are going to seek out words that delight, they are only found in one place — the Truth. True, at times, these may not be the words we most want to hear, but they are indeed the words that will be of the most value to us as we grow and they will be the words that produce maturity in our souls.
How often people collect around themselves those who will simply tell them what they most want to hear. In business, we call them “Yes-Men” or “Sycophants,” but they are nothing more than people who refuse to offer an opinion for fear of losing their place. Their loyalty may sound like it is to you, but it is really only ever to themselves. The man or woman who comes alongside of you and who speaks truth, even those truths that are difficult to hear, so long as it is in love, are those men and women who are truly loyal. These are the ones we all most need in our confidence and when things go well because of their insight, you will delight.
Today, though, people seem so insecure that they are almost afraid to receive criticism — constructive or otherwise. Are we so insecure as a culture that we would prefer to speak into a vacuum than to engage human beings with differing ideas? Have our teachers failed so miserably that we genuinely think that an attack against a person’s character is a legitimate form of debate? I fear that the answer to both of those questions is “yes.” Woe to us as a culture, for this is not the mindset that built the great nations of the western world. If we would be “Great Again” (to borrow from a popular slogan), we must recapture what it means to engage with ideas and to recognize that true words are and ought to be delightful, no matter from where they come.
One of my professors in seminary, Jack Williamson, repeated a phrase over and over again to us as we were in class. “Be hard on ideas,” he said, “But be soft on people.” What he meant by that, of course, was to speak truth in love — to attack an idea with great vigor, but do not attack the person bringing the idea. His heart was to see this take root in our churches; but what if we could nurture that idea in our communities, our nations, and our world as well? Then, and only then, will we really appreciate Solomon’s words here.
“The preacher was more than wise, teaching knowledge to the people, but he balanced and straightened many proverbs.”
At the beginning of our reflections on Ecclesiastes, we discussed the proofs of Solomon’s authorship; here is just one more proof of the same. Who, but Solomon, organized the Proverbs that we have? Indeed, if the preacher here in Ecclesiastes is the same teacher as who organized the Proverbs, it can be no one other than Solomon who has authored this text. Not that this should be a hard sell, but simply a reminder of the trustworthiness of the tradition behind King Solomon’s authorship.
But what does it mean when the text says he “balanced and straightened” the proverbs? One must recall that the proverbs are not just words that were written by Solomon, but he accumulated wise sayings from his generation and from the generations before him. In addition, he grouped and ordered them in a useful fashion and further, it can be supposed, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he corrected the statements that were skewed somewhat because they originated in a pagan culture. That is the work of balancing and straightening in this context.
And so, what is Solomon’s crowning achievement? Most of the time people think of the Temple or of his wealth — both rightly attributed. Yet, Solomon’s crowning achievement was neither of these things — it was his role in teaching wisdom to the people, in his case, through three books of the Bible and two Psalms (72 & 127). Other things are important, but this is the most important aspect of his life — and in these aspects, Solomon points us toward Christ.
How often, the goal of the pastor is to build an empire for himself — leave a reputation behind as a great preacher or as a faithful caregiver to the sick and dying. And while these are very important roles in the life of the pastor, his first job is to faithfully teach wisdom to the people of God. Sadly, this is sometimes the least appreciated aspect of his ministry simply because this is what he ordinarily does week in and week out in all of his interactions. Paul instructs Timothy that he is to strive to “rightly handle the Word of Truth”… Qoheleth (the Preacher) does…may that be said of those of us who pastor and of those who are our pastors. Let our names be forgotten and our empires never emerge from the dirt, but let us teach wisdom to the children of God who are eager to listen and learn.
“Until the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl crushed — until the jar is smashed at the spring and the wheel is broken at the cistern — and dust returns to the earth just as it was — and the spirit returns to the God which gave it — vanity of vanity says the preacher, all is vanity.”
Solomon completes the poetic digression here in verse 8 with the familiar refrain and much of what was said of the above passage applies well here to these words. Yet I wanted to set these words apart to make an important point about the dangers of speculative theology.
We have already mentioned how this passage deals with the decline and then the death of a man — make the most of your days and learn wisdom in your youth so that when the difficult times of being an old man arrive you are well-prepared. We have also discussed how some of the imagery in this passage was understood metaphorically by Rabbinic leaders to speak about the body of a man (the strong man bent over and the caper not doing its job, etc…). Again, that is a little further than I am willing to take the text, but it is not too hard to see the allegories that they are making.
There are some, though, that have taken these words significantly further and created an entire mystical set of beliefs based on the idea of the silver cord mentioned above. This is called “Sutratma” and is built on the belief that the body is tied to the spirit with a silver cord (when it snaps, you die) and people who follow such beliefs are supposed to be able to engage in things like “astral projection” where their spirits can move about apart from their bodies so long as the silver cord remains intact. For fans of the recent Marvel movies, this is one of the activities practiced by the character, Dr. Strange. All of this ties back to these verses in Ecclesiastes.
The problem here, of course, is context. Solomon is not speaking of mystical abilities or of separation of spirit from body for short periods of time, Solomon is speaking of death and is using largely metaphorical language to illustrate his point in a poetic way. Perhaps think about it this way. In Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet, the title character discovers the skull of Yorick (a former court jester) in the graveyard. For Hamlet, this is a point that helps provide him perspective on both life and death and is a significant turning point for the character. Yet, the skull, though symbolic of the fact that all die, is nothing more than a skull. Hamlet is not alluding to mystical powers that come from such artifacts, its discover simply provides him the instance to reflect on the reality that all men, great and small, return to dust. Solomon is doing much the same.
Friends, you may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, Pastor Win, we understand — it is a poetic figure of speech and we should not allegorize it or go off and create an entire theology/philosophy based on it, but we were not likely to do so in the first place.” True. Maybe. Here’s the thing. Any time you take a verse out of its context and try to use that verse to prove an idea, you are guilty of doing the same thing as what people have done with the silver cord. Take care in how you use the Word of God and do not take passages out of context. If you do take it out of context, this preacher will echo the words of Solomon… “vanity of vanity says the preacher…”
“Remember your creator in the days of your youthfulness — before the days of evil come and the years drawn near in which you will say, ‘There is nothing of pleasure in them’ — before the sun and the light of the moon and stars are darkened — and the clouds return after the rain — in the days when the guardians of the house tremble and the men of strength are bent over — when the women who grind cease to do so because they are few and the ones who look through the lattice are dimmed — when the doors in the street are shut — when the sound of the mill is low — when one rises to the sound of the bird and all the daughters of song are bowed down — also, they fear what is high and the terrors in the way — the almond blossoms and the grasshopper bears a load — the caper fails because man is going to his eternal home. Around the street are mourners.”
There is a lot going on in these verses, but they contain a single train of thought, contrasting the days of our youth, when everything seemed bright and exciting, with the days of our waning years, when things seem dark and foreboding. Isn’t it interesting that almost every generation looks back to the “good old days”… but if we are honest, those days weren’t always all very good. To the young who are enjoying life, Solomon says, “do not neglect your creator.” Why is this so important? Simple. Spiritual maturity grows slowly and it is only spiritual maturity that prepares you for the dark days and for those days leading up to your death. So, in other words, the earlier you begin to develop that spiritual maturity, the better off you will be when the times of trial enter into your life.
The Rabbi Akabia ben Mahalalel (late first and early second century) wrote that there are three things you need to know in life: from whence you came, to where you are going, and before whom you must stand in judgment. In some ways, these words address at least the final two questions and allude to the first. We are born into this world in an ordinary way, but do not think that the God of creation does not have a hand in our individual creation — he is not just a creator in general senses, but he is a creator who functions as a potter, forming each of us in our mother’s wombs and placing within each one of us a soul designed after his plan and for his purposes. Further, unless our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, returns within our lifetimes, we will all go to the grave, our bodies being held in-trust within the ground for that day of resurrection. And finally, it is before God that we will be made to give an account of all we have and have not done when the books are opened before his great white throne.
The Hebrews often treated some of this language figuratively (the strong man bent over reminding us of how age and a deteriorating spine bend down with age, the almond blossoms as one’s hair goes from dark to grey, and the caper (used for the vitality of the libido) is not doing its job. And, certainly, the the context of a poetic passage, that reading is not unfair, though it is a little further than I am comfortable going. Such as it is, this is filled with idioms and figures of speech that do not lend themselves to a word-for word translation. Again, such should be no surprise within a poetic passage such as this.
“Rejoice, young man, in your youth and let your heart please you in the days of your youth. Walk in the way of your heart and by the sight of your eyes. Know that God comes to you with judgment in all these things. Turn aside from the vexation in your heart for youth and dark hair are vanity.”
“Youth and dark hair”? Literally the Hebrew word toward the end of verse 10 is שַׁחֲרוּת (shacharuth) means “blackness.” Yet, in Hebrew, it is a figure of speech that refers to the dark, black hair of someone at the prime of their youth — before the grey streaks begin to show up. Of course, in the Hebrew culture, Grey hair is a crown of glory gained by a righteous life (Proverbs 16:31), so again, you have a contrast between the wisdom of the old and the folly of the youth. Our various English translations tend to render this idiom in a variety of ways, but in each case, the idea that Solomon is talking about the vanity of youth is meant to be conveyed.
So, what is Solomon saying? There is a tongue-in-cheek tone to these words. He (almost sarcastically) says, “go and enjoy the foolishness of your youth because God will judge you for it.” We might expect him to say, “No young man, turn back from those things,” and this is something that he has already said. Yet, as he wraps up the book he begins driving the point home and saying, “If you insist on this foolishness, in spite of what I told you, go do it, but then you will face the judgment of God.”
How often God permits us to do some things that are unwise. They may be wastes of time, money, energy, or resources, but God does not bring us into direct judgment for them. Indeed, we will have to answer to God, though, for our folly in the time of judgment. In the end, those foolish things we do are vanity — empty. So, does that mean we ought to never do frivolous things in our youth? The reality is, that won’t happen. We are sinners and we have not yet grown to maturity to understand what we ought an ought not do. The sad thing is when old men with the grey hair of age live in the folly of youth rather in the maturity of their peers.
In the end, though, the call upon is to learn to turn away from those things that vex and antagonize our hearts — don’t run into situations in a fit of anger and don’t rush to attack everything with which you disagree around you. Pick and choose your battles and grow in the wisdom that suits the grey hairs forming on your head.
“Thus, if man exists for a great number of years, in all of them he should rejoice. Yet, let him remember the days of darkness for they will be many — all that comes is vanity.”
Depending on how you read the word הָאָדָם (ha’adam) — literally, “the man” will determine how you understand the practical application of this proverb. For example, if you read this as most translations seem to render it — as “a man” — then this fits many of the themes we have seen throughout this book. No matter how many years you live — great or small — rejoice in all of them because there are many years of darkness and hardship that you will have to face. If life is just lived for the sake of living, then, everything is vanity.
If, however, you translate this more literally, as “the man,” meaning a reference to mankind, then the take away is a little different. Mankind’s days on the earth are limited; they began with Adam about 6,000 years ago and they will continue until the return of Jesus. And, as Solomon very accurately points out, the days of darkness are many. There are wars and plagues and disasters to face that affect not just the individuals, but cultures as a whole. So, what are we to do in light of this reality? We are to rejoice in that which is “rejoice-worthy.”
What or whom gives us reason to rejoice in the ultimate sense? Jesus. He is our hope beyond this world of dark days and vanity. We do not know how many more years or millennia he might tarry, but nevertheless, in Him is our only true and lasting hope. In Him we can rejoice in the dark years as well as in the years of peace. And, whether you take this as a reference to the individual or to the race, the application is still the same. Rejoice in Christ all of the years of your life knowing that there will be many difficult years ahead but even in them Christ will give you hope.
“The light is pleasant; it is good for the eyes to see the sun.”
How appropriate this verse is on this grey and rainy morning in western Pennsylvania. Winters here tend toward grayness and a lot of clouds. It is not that we never see the sun in the winter, but it just does not seem to be the norm for this region at this time of the year. And, for those with depression, I am told this time of the year here can be very difficult as sunshine does affect our moods. And I suppose, too, that if you have a vitamin D deficiency, these grey, cloudy days do not help either.
There is no question that it is good for us to see the sun. Many years back, the job I worked typically had me scheduled from 4PM to 2AM. The fact is, I slept through most of the sun of the day. My mother used to say that I had never been more grouchy and brooding than the two years I worked that set of shifts. Funny how much the sunshine can affect us. And thus, Solomon gives us the reminder that it is good for our eyes to see the sun.
There is a spiritual application to this as well. God is Light, we are told in 1 John 1:5 and in Him there is no darkness. It is certainly true that John is using the contrast between light and darkness as a metaphor to contrast good and evil, truth and a lie, but the principle bears pointing out that if we wish to truly see and understand, we can only do so in the light of God — a light that comes out of and through his Word. If we wish to see, we cannot see without it. If we wish to know truth, we cannot know truth apart from the word of God. And thus, it is very good for the eyes to see the light of God in this absolute sense.
We are promised a time, in the new creation, where there will be no darkness and the nations will walk by the light of the lamp of the Lamb of God (Revelation 21:22-24). In fact, in the new creation we are told here that there will be no sun or moon because the glory of God will give it light. Jesus indeed is the “effulgent splendor” or the “radiance of the glory of God” as the author of Hebrews writes (Hebrews 1:3). He will indeed be the light that is good for our eyes. Until that time though, we must look to and see that light in the Word.
It is good for the eyes to see the sun, but it is far better for the eyes to gaze upon the Son.
“In the morning, sow your seed and in the evening do not cause your hand to rest, for you do not know which one will succeed — this or that — or if both ones will be good.”
In short…”Get while the getting is good.” When I was taught to garden, I was always taught to plant 2-3 seeds together at a time to ensure that at least one would germinate. If they all sprout, you can separate them out or you can just thin them out. When you have a good day to plant, you make the most of the day. I am told that the best and worst invention for the farmers were headlights for their tractors so they could continue working after dark. In this part of the country, nowadays, it is common to see farmers out into the late hours of the night working the fields, whether planting or harvesting, because there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s weather will be suitable to do so.
In my days as a residential carpet installer, September-December was our busiest season and there was as much work as any of us might want and then more. My wife would sometimes joke that we were like passing ships in the night during those times as I often took two jobs during the day and one at night — sometimes working until well after midnight only to get back up at 5AM the next day. Yet, January through March brought a lull and I would often spend days or even weeks without consistent work. The principle is the same — you get as much out of the day as you can and you don’t put things off if you can do them now.
This is as much a spiritual truth as it is a practical truth. How often do we see our Bible study and prayer as being a lower priority during the day? How often, when we have a little time to spare, that we just turn on the television for some mindless entertainment? Would it not be more productive to read or watch a sound program about the Bible? Would it not be more productive to write someone a letter who is suffering. I am not saying that leisure time is a bad thing, but it seems like our culture pursues leisure time above all else — it is a Brave New World indeed!
Loved ones, work at the tasks that God has put before you and at the calling he has given you. Do not think that with the setting of the sun comes a time to put down all things you must do, but instead, labor into the night to complete those tasks because tomorrow may not permit you to do so. This is true in the physical world and this is true of our spiritual needs as well.
“Just as you do not know in what way the wind nor how the body develops in the womb, in the same way, you do not know the work of God who does all things.”
“The Spirit blows where He wills and you hear the sound of Him, but you have not known where He goes and when He goes away. Thus it is with all who have been born from the Spirit.”
The bottom line is that there is much we do not know. But just like the farmer who will never plant if he is always trying to predict the winds, so too we can be if we try and discern every possible variable and outcome of an action. Do I do this or do I do that? Should I live here or should I live there? Should I go on this mission trip or should I remain home and continue evangelizing my neighbors? And the list of questions goes on.
In many denominations, those who are recognized as having a call to serve on the mission field are expected to raise their own funding and support. That notion has often struck me as rather odd because it is built on the assumption that if one has a calling to a certain kind of ministry then one also has the gift of raising money to do so. And, while that may be the case for some people, I am not convinced that is the norm. I think that a better model is that when one is identified as having a calling to such a work then others, who have the gifts of raising money should come alongside of said person and ensure that the ministry is supported — and then the person perhaps make up the difference in terms of his family’s needs by taking a job and “tent-making”?
While my wiring is more geared toward ministry, I have been grateful for those people who have come alongside of me through the years whose gifts and calling is to be resource-minded who can help make that ministry an ongoing reality. At the same time, while I was ministering to the homeless at Gateway Rescue Mission while in seminary, I also worked a trade to make sure the bills got paid. And, when I served Westminster Presbyterian Church, just out of seminary, I also served as a chaplain at a Christian school. Serving bi-vocationally in ministry is not a bad thing and has advantages in many ways (if for nothing else than the fact that the congregation then takes more ownership of the work of ministry rather than dumping it all on the guy that gets a paycheck. Certainly, serving full-time at the church as I do now has advantages as well. The key is to learn to trust God’s provision and the fact that there are parts of the body that function differently — and if the body works together properly, all parts can work as they are designed.
The challenge is developing the trust that both can work side by side toward the same goal. All too often, though, what happens is that one or both sides thinks that their aims will be threatened by the other. Usually, the ministry-minded folks think that the resource-minded folks are stifling their work or the resource-minded folks think that all the ministry-minded folks want to do is to run the church broke. A better way is for the resource-minded people to bless the desires and aims of the ministry-minded folks and say — “run as hard and fast as you can in your calling, but here are the boundaries that we can continue to support this work.” And then for the ministry-minded people to learn to trust the heart of the resource-minded folks, knowing that we are all “on the same team” or more accurately, are part of the same body.
Here’s the place where trust comes in. The ministry-minded people and the resource-minded people will never truly understand the other. They might sympathize on a certain level, but the people are different enough that understanding will be no more present than a hand’s ability to understand the role of the hip or visa versa. In Solomon’s words, though, we are reminded that God works all these things out — and he does so not for our glory, but for His. And so, when both sides come to the table for a discussion, both sides need to come with the recognition that the goal of God’s glory is the same, though the means may be different, and that they are part of the same body.
No, we are not going to understand how a baby is formed in the womb, but that doesn’t stop us from having babies. And we don’t know which way the wind will blow and so, when it is time to plant, we plant. And we do not know many things in the grand scheme of God’s plan and design, but what we do know is that God is sovereign and has ordered all things according to the counsel of his will…and folks, if we cannot trust God’s design, what are we doing in the church?
“He who keeps watch over the wind will not sow; he who gazes at the clouds will not reap.”
As we have done with these proverbs, we begin with a practical application. If you spend all of your time watching the weather and fretting over whether it will rain tomorrow or whether the winds will blow down the stalks of grain or corn, then you will likely never end up getting out in the field to work. Something that just about any farmer will tell you is that farming is a massive gamble because you plan ahead for the following year’s seed often before this year’s crops come off and always before you have any idea as to what the following year’s weather will look like. It is a huge challenge, but without those willing to take the risks needed, none of us would have food on our tables. So, we should always be grateful for those men and women who farm the soil.
There is a principle that everyone can learn here as we observe our farmers. Indeed, we all find ourselves at times in our lives where we need to make a decision — do I attempt this business venture, do I ask this woman to be my bride, do I relocate my family to this or that part of the country (or world!). These are all decisions that have consequences that will affect you and your family for years to come, so they ought to be thought out and prayed out well. Yet, if you spend all of your time thinking and contemplating, then there is a good chance you will watch the opportunity go by, just as you watch the wind blow away the clouds. Beloved, changing the world (or your life) begins by acting when opportunities arise.
There is another application that is worth noting. The word רוּחַ (ruach) in this context, is most naturally translated as “wind,” but the word also means “spirit.” Who is the one who watches over the spirit of man? That, of course, is God himself. And what of this matter of God not sowing? Indeed, while God will call all of His elect to himself in His time, he uses men to plant the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of his own. Indeed, it is our responsibility (and privilege!) to plant the seeds of the Gospel wherever we go and in all of the nations of the world. Those who would sit back and say, “If God wants to call someone to faith, let God bring them to my church,” are sinning and need to repent. They are also robbing themselves of the joy of actively laboring in Christ’s fields. God watches over the souls of his own and brings new birth when the time is right but he uses faithful believers to sow the seed of the Word in the lives of men. Be that faithful sower, friend, and be faithful to the one who watches over your spirit as well.
“If the clouds are filled with rain, they will empty upon the land. If a tree falls in the south or if it is in the north — in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”
In French, the phrase “C’est la vie” simply means, “that’s life.” It is the pronouncement that things happen in this world — of some we are pleased, of others we are displeased, and of others still we are more or less indifferent. In the end, though, these things happen to all people in all places of the world, so don’t think that you have a cloud hanging over your life — deal with what is before you and move on with life.
That is the heart of what Solomon is encouraging us to deal with in this verse. Look — when the clouds are filled with rain…eventually that means that rain will come down onto the land. If the rain is advantageous to you, great. If the rain is disadvantageous to you, it will still fall; that’s just the way it is. The same holds true with a tree. It would be convenient, were a tree to fall, if it fell and landed near where you needed the wood. But that is not how things work. If a tree is in the north, it will fall in the north and lay on the ground in the north until someone comes and fetches it. And, if no one fetches it, it will rot where it lays. And the same thing happens when a tree falls in the south. So, if you need lumber, whether you are building a house, a table, or a fire, you best be prepared to go fetch the tree that has fallen and bring it back to your workshop.
The same principle is true with wisdom. Wisdom does not just happen, it must be learned through the study of God’s Word and experience in applying God’s Word. Sometimes people are jealous — “he knows is Bible better than me” or “she has huge portions of the Bible memorized!” — God did not tap them with a wand in their regeneration and give them some sort of super-Bible power. No, they committed time to making the study and application of God’s Word a priority in their lives — won’t you?
“Send your bread to the face of the waters for in many days you will find it; give a share to seven and also to eight for you do not know what evil may take place on the earth.”
Growing up in church, we always used verse 1 a little out of context — and I confess that even to this day, the verbiage of “cast your bread on the waters” is verbiage that I associate with evangelism and with Isaiah’s words that the Word of God shall not return void (or empty) when it goes it, but that it will do what God designed for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). And, one can make an argument that this proverb of Solomon’s can be applied to evangelism (I’ll come back to that), but at the heart of it, Solomon is dealing with generosity.
The phrase we have in English that conveys the heart of this passage is “what goes around, comes around.” In other words, be generous to others — give a share of your possessions to seven or even to eight people because you do not know when you will be in a position that you will need others to share with you. Jesus says not to store up your treasures here on earth. Why? There are two answers. The first and most significant is that where your treasure is there your heart will be. There is also a practical lesson — on earth, moth and rust will destroy. Calamities and evil things will happen and rob you of your wealth, don’t hoard it up. Similarly, Jesus tells us to use worldly wealth to make friends on earth so that when your wealth fails you will be welcomed into eternal places. The idea is very much the same as what Solomon is teaching here — be generous with worldly things and in your time of need, others will be generous with you.
Yet, as I mentioned, there is also a spiritual reminder connected to this language. For, what greater investment can be made in the life of another than by sharing spiritual truths? Friends, as I look back on my life, I am eternally grateful for those men and women who fed their time and their prayers into my life in meaningful ways. During my own years of rebellion, for instance, my grandmother organized a group of women from our church to pray for me daily. I think back to Dr. Rick Burnor, a philosophy professor in college, who took time to open his home to me to mentor me in the earliest days of my faith as a Christian (studying the book of Romans together). I am grateful to pastors and other Christian friends who did not completely throw up their hands in frustration with me during those years of trying to figure out my place in this world, and I am grateful to my wife for following as I led even when often she paid a greater price in terms of things being left behind. I am also grateful for Elders who have guided me and protected me over the years, teaching me wisdom and patience with God’s stubborn flock. And then, there will be many whose names I may never know here on earth who have spoken (if only briefly) into my life and have shaped me into the man that I am. Feed into the life of others and in time, what Solomon is saying, it will come back to you in one form or another.
“Also, in your understanding, do not curse the king or in your bedroom curse a rich man; for a bird of the heavens will go with your voice and the master of wings will declare the matter.”
In English, we would say, “The walls have ears.” In other words, “be careful what you say.” Indeed, those things you say in secret have a way of working themselves out in public, usually to your great consternation. My mother used to say to me, “Don’t ever say or do anything that you would be embarrassed to see as a headline in the next morning’s newspaper.” Of course, newspapers are a thing of the past, but the principle holds true. Speak and act with integrity and don’t talk badly about people behind their back.
As Christians, gossip is a sin and the result of a debased mind (Romans 1:28-31), and mostly, what is said behind a person’s back falls into the category of gossip or slander. So, let your yes be yes and your no be no and speak with integrity about all you meet. And, if there is a real matter that needs to be addressed, go to that person face to face and with a spirit of love and see if you can work that out. The wicked talk about a person behind his back and then scheme to ambush him at a time of vulnerability; the righteous speaks to a person directly and with the aim of preserving the relationship.
In Solomon’s case here, there is a second reminder found in the one’s of whom he is cautioning the reader against speaking a curse. Solomon does not say, “do not curse the poor man” nor does he say, “do not curse your neighbor.” Indeed, we are given permission to curse neither, but Solomon focuses on the rich and the king because these men have authority over those in the kingdom and you never know when you might need to appeal to them for assistance or for justice. And so, guard your lips as to how you speak of them because if word gets back to them that you have cursed them behind their backs, they will be unlikely to assist you face to face.
Perhaps one of the more practical (and spiritual) applications of this principle is found in the life of the church. Children oftentimes overhear how their parents speak about the leadership of the church and about the decisions that the leaders make. And, then tend to adopt their parents’ attitudes without hypocrisy. In other words, while the parents may speak privately of their dislike of the pastor or leaders’ decisions, the children will speak openly about them. And while the parents will still attend worship politely, the children will likely fall away as soon as they are given the opportunity. Be careful what you say, the birds will invariably “whisper in the ear” of those of whom you speak.
“Bread is for pleasure, wine makes life merry, and silver replies to everything.”
At first glance, this seems that Solomon is advocating a sort of pragmatic hedonism — eat, drink, and be merry and when you get into trouble, you can buy yourself out of your problems. Yet, to teach such a thing would be inconsistent with the content and purpose of this book. One might be tempted, then, to connect this verse with the verses around this — perhaps these are the words of the fool in his midst, yet this passage seems to be a series of individual proverbs listed together — a kind of “Pensees” of Solomon. These problems, then, warrant a closer look at the text.
To begin with, in Hebrew, “bread” is often idiomatic for a meal and sometimes for a feast. That still doesn’t help with the interpretation much, though. It is not until you begin to think through the nature and role of wine in the ancient world. Not only was wine considered a mark of blessing in the Jewish world (and hence, was a staple at the Passover Feast, for instance), it was also a sign of eschatological (end times) blessing (see Joel 3:18 or Amos 9:14 for example).
In the American culture, we have become so concerned about the abuse of wine and other alcoholic beverages that we often forget that God has given it to us as a gift and as a boon. Drinking wine with a meal is a good thing — drunkenness is sin (Ephesians 5:18, et al.). If you then ask yourself the question about how Solomon uses silver in his writings, you will realize that he always uses it in a positive way. Even when he is saying that it is better to have wisdom than silver or gold, the silver and gold are lifted up as examples of good worldly things against which wisdom can be compared. And again, like wine and good food, silver is something that men enjoy and celebrate, but (if you have learned anything from Solomon’s words in this book) all these good things come from the hand of God.
So, what is this proverb telling us? Certainly, Solomon has said repeatedly that we should work hard and enjoy the fruit of our labors…here too is the same notion with the reminder that all of these good things — food, wine, and wealth — come from the hand of God, so honor Him with it. Celebrate God’s providence in your feast days and use the silver you have earned to “reply to everything” — give generously and abundantly where there are needs. Wealth is not bad when it is used rightly and to the glory of God — it is only the love of wealth and its hoarding that is the root of all kinds of evil things.
“Because of laziness, the timberwork sags; because the hands are idle, the house is leaky.”
The practical observation is obvious. A wise man makes sure that his hands are busy and that he takes care of his house. When my wife and I first got married, we bought an old farm house that had been built back in 1905. In many ways, it was a great starter-home, but it was old and needed a lot of work. Floor joists sagged under the weight of the second floor and while the slate roof never leaked when it rained, when it snowed and the wind was blowing just right, it would blow snow into the attic (so, I had to shovel out the attic as well as the walk!).
Yet, once again, we see a spiritual application. The lazy man does not feed his soul with the word of God. And when one is idle in spiritual matters, it is not a building that falls down, it is the life of a person. Woe to the one who ignores the state of his own soul and then wonders why pagan and sinful ideas infiltrate the life.
Loved ones, set the Word of God before you like a lamp and examine all of life in its light. Do not compromise the Scriptures for the sake of expediency or pragmatism and do not let anyone in your life intimidate you into letting this word be put to the side. Do not let sloth ruin your house — your personal life or your church — but let the Word of God build both up to be strong and mighty so no matter what the storms of life may bring, both may stand strong and not yield to leaks.
“Woe to you, O earth, when your king is an adolescent and your princes eat in the morning. Blessed are you, O earth, when your king is the son of a noble one — your princes will eat at an appropriate time, in strength and not in drunkenness.”
Certainly Judah would have ample young kings and several would rule well with the aide of their custodians. Of course, such had not been the case prior to Solomon’s lifetime, though certainly it can be presumed that he had seen young kings before and had seen how the princes would oftentimes abuse the king’s youth for their own gain — most typically to the detriment of the people of the land.
There is something more to these verses, though, in the context of the larger passage. And here the key is the word “adolescent.” In a literal sense, this can refer to a boy. Typically this word refers to a young man who is learning a trade and might be eligible for marriage, though has not yet been betrothed. In modern times, we would think of this as a teenager — in Solomon’s times, this would probably refer to someone a little younger.
Spiritually, though, this word refers to someone who is immature in his faith, and when we begin to think of these words in this sense a very different picture comes to mind. Woe to the land when your king acts like a child. And while that opens up a million-and-one possible places of application, my intention here is to focus on the principle in question — we need leaders on every level that are spiritually mature — men and women of faith — to lead our institutions and our nation, or the people will suffer while our princes get drunk serving themselves.
There was a time in our nation that grew hair was seen as a mark of maturity and honor — even in the church, a congregation considered them fortunate to have an old pastor instead of a young one — because with the old pastor comes wisdom. Today, the trend is to celebrate the young pastor and the energy he brings with him. People often look at churches who have old pastors as churches which are dying. Part of the problem, of course, is that often, when churches hire a pastor, they hire him to do the work of ministry…not to train them to do the work of ministry as the Apostle Paul instructs in Ephesians 4.
To this — to the church in America — Solomon is saying, “woe to the earth.” Why woe? It is because we are not being salt and light; it is because we have not become pillars and buttresses of the Truth; it is because we have not torn down the idols of our society and striven take every thought captive to the Word of God. Popular, high-energy preachers cannot accomplish this task. Mature pastors who train their congregations to do the work of ministry can and will.
There is a mindset we must change and it must change one congregation at a time. But that means Christians must repent of their idolatry of the youth and of their cult of personality. Until that changes, our land will continue to spiral into immorality and godlessness.
“The anxiety of the fool continually wearies him; he does not know which way to walk to the city.”
How anxiety incapacitates people. It wears people out, it drains them of vigor and life, and it causes their days to be marked with indecision. They fear so many of the possible outcomes that they don’t know which way to go — even when it is something so simple as that of heading into town. It is not that the way into the city is hidden and obscure; just the fear of the perils along the way bind the anxious person to inaction. And of those in this category, Solomon labels them as a fool.
Why a fool? Is that not rather harsh? While that might sound harsh to our modern ears, the statement that he makes is quite reasonable. If believers are held in the hands of an almighty God, have we anything to fear? If, as Solomon has repeatedly said, God numbers our days and orders our paths, why should we be anxious? Jesus will say very much the same thing about anxiety (Luke 12:22). It is the pagan who has reason to be anxious for his gods can do nothing to aide him; our God is sovereign. But why classify the anxious as a fool? It is because the fool is the one who says there is no God (Psalm 53:1) and then acts accordingly. And friends, if there is no God and all we are is nothing more than randomly evolved organisms, then we have reason to be anxious and fear. But those of us who know there is a God can walk in confidence that all things work together for His glory and to conform me into the image of Christ.
That does not mean to live recklessly; we are called to live with wisdom. Yet, it does mean that we are not to cower or fear when we are called to act or step out in faith. We are called to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do — regardless of what the practical consequences might be — and recognize that in God’s economy, there is no such thing as a “Plan B.” Solomon’s words change the internal conversation that we have with ourselves in this matter — instead of “Will it be popular and well received?” we are called to ask, “Is this what God is commanding me to do?” If “yes,” we do it and trust God for the results.
“Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious; the lips of a fool consume him. At the beginning, the words of his mouth are foolish; at the end, his mouth is madness and evil. And the fool has many words. The man does not know what it will be or what will be after it or who will state it to him.”
When a man (or woman) opens his mouth, a lot can be discerned about the person and character of the one speaking. The words of a wise man, Solomon points out, are gracious. That does not always mean that they are easy to hear, but it does mean that when these words are received they build up rather than tearing down, they seek to strengthen and improve the person receiving the words rather than to mock and humiliate. A wise man has as his goal the lifting up of those around him rather than the tearing down.
A fool, on the other hand speaks and the more he speaks the more he tears down. Solomon is making it very clear that the fool in your midst is toxic and destructive. His words mock and taunt rather than strengthen and correct. And, the words of the fool come seemingly out of nowhere. They are unexpected and random in their origin — no one knows from whence they come. They are those random comments that people make that at best distract and at worst tear down. The fool has no interest in building up because he believes all those around him are below him.
So, with whom will you surround yourself? That is essentially the question that Solomon is asking. With whom will you surround yourself? To whom will you give authority in the church? What persons will find themselves in positions of influence over your life or your community? The fool may flatter at first, but his words do nothing more than bring evil into your life. Not grace. Choose wisely.
“If the serpent bites before it is charmed, it is of no profit to the master of the tongue.”
According to online sources like Wikipedia, the art of charming snakes began in Egypt, though we usually associate the art with India. Presuming an Egyptian origin, snake charming would have been something with which the Israeli people would have been quite familiar. And thus, the word picture displayed here, quite relevant.
The most basic aspect of the proverb is the literal illustration. If one who sets out to charm a snake is bitten by that snake before the snake is charmed, well, he is in a predicament. While most snake handlers make use of precautions, that misses the point. The serpents involved tend to be highly venomous and if the handler is bitten, emergency care is needed quickly to preserve his life.
When I started my career as a carpet installer, my boss rented the first floor of a small house as a showroom to sell jobs and I took regular evening shifts as part of my regular responsibilities. For a while, the upstairs was rented by a gentleman who raised venomous snakes for the Baltimore Zoo. One evening he brought me up to see an albino hooded viper that he had been raising. At the time, the snake was likely no more than a foot long, but it’s warning hiss was loud enough that it sounded like a vacuum cleaner. According to this man, the snake’s venom was potent enough to kill an elephant. I asked him what he would do if he ever came home and found that a snake had gotten out of the vivarium. He said, “I’d run.” So much for his skill as a snake charmer.
The spiritual side of the argument is likely just as obvious. If you have godly wisdom, yet do not apply said wisdom in the presence of evil or the threat thereof, you are going to find that your wisdom has done you very little good. Even more so, it will do those around you little good. The snake has struck.
As you look to the catechisms that have been put forth in the Reformed Tradition (Heidelberg and Westminster are probably the most widely used), one of the things that you will discover is that they suggest the “good and necessary consequences” that can be drawn from Biblical statements, in particular, with respect to the Law. Thus, when it comes to a command like, “Thou shall not murder,” there are applications in both the positive and negative. Not only are we to avoid actually murdering people, but we are to avoid those things like hatred and jealousy that lead people to murder one another. Further, we are to promote the welfare of our neighbor and do whatever we can to protect our neighbor’s life. This is an application of wisdom, as it were, ahead of the snake-bite.
Interestingly enough, the idiom for a snake charmer is the בַעַל הַלָּשׁוֹן (ba’al hallashon — “Master of the Tongue.” This clearly has to do with the characteristic tongue of the serpent, flicked in and out of its mouth as it engages with the charmer. James is very clear, though, that every Christian has an obligation to strive toward being the master of his or her own tongue (James 3:1-12). And so, once again, we see another level of application to this proverb, for what good is it to a man if he engages the tongue before his mind can control it? How much harm befalls a man or woman when they use their tongue indiscriminately and without wisdom?
“If the iron tools are blunt, and he does not sharpen its face, greater strength is needed; but wisdom results in success.”
A tool is far more valuable when the edge is sharp than when the edge is dull and interestingly, the edge of a knife is far more likely to injure you when dull than when sharp. Such is because a dull edge (as Solomon points out) requires more force to do the job for which it was designed. I suppose that this is one of those lessons that has been engrained in my life since boyhood. As a young man in the Boy Scouts, I lived with a pocket knife — cutting rope for shelters as well as for whittling when I had down-time. I also spent much time with an axe, splitting firewood, not just for scouts but for our home as well. Later, I spent more than a decade installing carpet in people’s homes and apartments where a razor-knife was a tool of the trade (and know well that when a razor is too dull to cut through carpet without force, it is quite sharp enough to cut through skin — I have the scar tissue to prove it!). And though I no longer work in the trades, I still split firewood, tinker with woodworking, as well as with other crafts needing sharp implements (and collect exotic knives as a hobby). Sharp is better. Sharp is safer, and sharp requires less brute force to use properly.
Yet, as with the previous verse, we must not limit this to a worldly application. The same is true when it comes to intellectual and spiritual matters. The bottom line is that many practice theology without minds and spirits that have been honed sharp by a careful study of the Scriptures. As a result, many pastors, churches, denominations, and even schools of theology practice sloppy theology, forcing a dull implement through the blessed Word of God. And sloppy theology is bad theology because it leads people astray. While the essentials of faith are clear enough even for the most rudimentary reading of the Word; God’s Word is also not so basic that it can be rightly divided by unsharpened tools. No, precision must be our goal that we might see and carefully understand the infinitely complex connections that bind the Word together as a unified whole. Like a spider’s web, with tiny filaments, the Scriptures are elegantly constructed so that all aspects of the Word point us to Christ. Yet, sharpened minds and spirits are necessary to dissect them. Blunt force yields perhaps the Truth, but the elegant wonders require precision.
And thus, Solomon once again offers us a reminder that we must take care of the tools that we use — sharpen the axe and the hoe indeed and do not permit them to become rusty. But sharpen your skills in the Word also. This takes careful reading and study — and as iron sharpens iron, it often takes that guidance and debate of others more mature than you. We will never master the Word of God, but as we immerse ourselves in its elegance, it will master us — and hone us until we are made complete in the presence of Christ.
“He who uproots stones hurts oneself with them; he who cuts trees endangers himself with them.”
As with many of the proverbs, there are two ways of looking at Solomon’s statement. The first and more literal approach to the text would be as the medieval Rabbi, Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, who pointed out that with any worthwhile and necessary labor comes a degree of danger and one must take appropriate precautions. Thus, whether you are hewing stone to build a house or splitting wood for cooking or warmth, there is a risk and one must take care to preserve life and limb. As one who splits his own firewood for winter, I can testify to the dangers that can come with doing so and as one who spent more than a decade installing carpet as a trade, the scar tissue on my hands and legs can testify to the wisdom of the old Rabbi.
There is also a spiritual approach that can be taken to this text given the historical context. One of the common reasons, in the ancient times, for hewing stone or cutting trees was for the construction of idols to worship. Whether they were Asherah poles or depictions of Ba’al, idol manufacture was “big business” in the ancient world. And, if we look at the text in this way, we recognize the great spiritual danger that comes along with these practices — danger that is eternal. In this way, we are looking at this verse much the way as we did the previous verse and asking ourselves, “What is intended by this action?” If we are intending something for purposes that would dishonor God then we ought not be surprised when it backfires in our face and harm comes to our lives.
“The one who digs a pit, into it he will fall. The one who breaches a wall, a serpent will bite.”
Solomon enters into a series of proverbs at this point in his book, which signals that he is preparing to make his closing arguments. Many of these statements will parallel other pieces of advice or counsel found in Solomon’s other writings, in particular, the book of Proverbs. In some way you might see these, in the mind of Solomon, as a kind of addendum (maybe even all of Ecclesiastes can be thought of in this way) to the proverbial writings of this king. And, as Solomon often does, he teaches principles of wisdom with some ironic twists and turns of a phrase.
In the case of this verse, there is a parallel that can be drawn with Proverbs 26:27, which speaks of those seeking to do evil having that evil turned back against them — presenting a form of ironic judgment. Those who dig a pit — the word גּוּמָּץ (gummats) referring to a pit that is a trap to catch another, not just a hole in the ground — will fall into it. Further, those who breach a wall — noting again that פָרַץ (parats) implies that you are breaching a wall for the purpose of harming those or taking from those protected by said wall — will find themselves bitten by the snakes dwelling within it.
I am reminded of my very first regular job, back in my high school days, one which began by tearing out an old stone retaining wall that had collapsed and digging it straight again so the stones could be relaid. In the process of doing so, I found several nests of snakes that had taken up residence amidst the cool of the stones. That summer, I would kill over 30 snakes (the owner’s wife was afraid of snakes) as I moved the rocks and shoveled the dirt. Gratefully, the snakes were not poisonous and I was not bitten, but my project was not aimed to bring harm to another.
In God’s economy, where one seeks to bring harm to another, they are often met with detrimental obstacles. Such is the tone of Solomon’s proverb here. How often have we known of people who have sought to bring harm, but seemingly random events have hindered them? YouTube is filled with videos and stories of “stupid” criminals who are thwarted by their own “dumb luck” … but is it really dumb luck? Solomon’s words here is that “luck” has nothing to do with it — they are thwarted by God’s own sense of ironic judgment, worked out in his providence. And for that, we are should be grateful.