“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.
“The heart of the wise is to his right side; the heart of the fool is to his left side.”
Long before groups and parties began using the terms “right and left” to indicate someone’s political ideology (this began during the French Revolution, where the supporters of the King and Religion stood at his right side and the Revolutionaries were on the left), Solomon was writing these words. And while some might be tempted to state that Solomon was being prophetic here, to suggest he is speaking of politics here would be reading modern ideas into the ancient text (called “eisegesis” and something to avoid).
Instead, the Rabbis tended to see this as a kind of allegory (no offense to left-handed people) based on the idea that most people are more proficient with their right hand than with their left hand. And so, the person whose heart (read heart as referring to the personality and mind of a person) was in their right hand was seen as proficient in using said thing — thoughtful, reasonable, and not rash. Whereas the one whose heart was in his left hand was not so proficient and was thus, unthoughtful, unreasoning, and rash in the choices they would make.
And so, the wise person is one who does not act without thought and reason. Further, when he does so, he uses it well, with prudence and restraint. In contrast, the fool, who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 53:1), uses his reason awkwardly and clumsily as would someone were he or she to be asked to write with their off-hand.
The sad thing, in many circles (including the church), the good use of reason is no longer cherished. Debates, which were once meant as a means of exchanging and refining ideas, have become battlegrounds where the loudest voice wins the day — something closer to sophism than it is to a wise discourse. The basic rules of logic are cast to the wind and people simply pontificate about their preference rather than to speak sobermindedly about the question at hand. Averroise’ “Double Truths” seem to have won the day in the west.
Christianity, or at least what often passes as Christianity, largely has fallen into this trap as well. Instead of building theologies on sober reasoning from the scripture, people have embraced a kind of spirituality that is driven by experience. How it “feels” tends to be the test of truth rather than whether something is consistent with the Word of God. And thus, now we not only have numerous branches that would fall under the umbrella of orthodox Christian theology, but there are countless groups that present themselves as Christian, but who champion numerous heretical positions built on the imagination of men. The “tares” are growing up amongst the wheat, and boy it sure seems like there are a lot of them.
“Dead flies make stench flow from the oil of the ointment-mixer; a little folly is esteemed more than wisdom and honor.”
This is one of my favorite lines in the whole of this book. The philosopher, Blaise Pascal, would write: “The power of flies, which win battles, hinder our soul from action, devour our body.” While I know that God has a purpose for flies — they help with the decomposition of matter and provide food for spiders and toads, for instance — they can be the greatest of nuances. How often has your deep thought been distracted by flies? How often has a relaxing afternoon turned into a mad dash for a fly swatter, only to discover the fly out of sight until you put the swatter back? How often has a good meal been ruined by flies buzzing about and landing on the food? And, as the rabbi’s point out, just one fly, in its dying, can often land in the ointment that the perfumer is making, ruining the whole batch. Indeed, the power of the flies.
Yet, both Solomon and Pascal had something more in mind. The words that follow this remind us of how just a little bit of foolishness, like the fly, can ruin both wisdom and honor — just as one sinner can tear down much good (see above). Pascal follows the words of the fly with a reminder that “When we are too young, our judgment is at fault, so also when we are too old” (Pensees). The same line of thought is advanced. Do not trust the foolishness of the youth (or of the senile), but pursue wisdom where it can be found. Do not let the foolish flies in when you are applying yourself to matters of importance and of great value. They will cause the whole to stink.
“Wisdom is better than implements of war, yet one sinner consistently tears down much good.”
How quickly we rush to war when wisdom more often than not can lay out a path toward a lasting peace. This does not mean that there is never a place for a war when justice demands it, yet history is filled with examples of rash men running to grab sword or gun rather than seeking sound wisdom to guide through the conflict at hand.
Furthermore, weapons of war are constructed by the hands of men. And though the technology has advanced and weapons have become increasingly sophisticated and effective, they are still constructed by the hands of men. Wisdom, on the other hand, begins with the fear of the Lord and is constructed by God’s own hand. Thus, when we neglect wisdom and embrace the weapons of war, we are embracing a form of idolatry, presuming that man’s power to destroy is far greater than that of God’s wisdom to preserve.
The fearful thing is that sadly it is not just nations that run to man-made weapons rather than to wisdom. Communities do that, families do that, friends do that, and even churches do that. How sad it is when the Church of Jesus Christ turns from the wisdom of God and arms themselves for war internally. Indeed, one sinner will consistently tear down the good that is wrought within a church or a community. How we should strive to build up rather than to beat down, yet the sin within so often brings about just the reverse.
“I turned and saw under the sun that it is not to the speedy that the race goes, nor is it to the mighty that the war goes, nor is it to the wise that the bread goes, nor is it to the ones with understanding that the wealth goes, nor is it to the knowledgeable that grace goes. Time and circumstance happens to all of them. For a man also does not know his time like a fish that is seized in an evil net or like a bird held in a snare; as if they were snared, the sons of Adam are to an evil time as it falls on them suddenly.”
Life happens. It happens when we are prepared for it and it happens when we are not prepared for it. One of the great lies of the prosperity movement is that if you just have enough faith, God will provide all good things for you in an earthly sense. One of the lies that is believed in the broader, and orthodox church, is that if you behave yourself and abstain from wicked living, while you will have bumps in your life, it will be easier than the life of the unbeliever — we kind of develop the mindset that God owes us something. Yet, scripture tells us that it is through trials that we grow stronger in our faith (James 1:2-4) and so a life of comfort without trials to face is more of a curse than a blessing as we will not grow and mature in our faith.
So, Solomon continues his reflection about time and events — they happen to all of us, fast or slow, weak or strong, wise or foolish, knowledgeable and understanding or unknowing and inept. Life happens to all of us. It is at God’s discretion in the end.
That does not mean that we ought not strive for things — we are called to do all in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17), thus doing all things to our best and not sloppily so that our King is honored. And so, the tension remains. The race is run and we all push to be the fastest and the best. Yet, we know that God in his sovereignty sometimes ordains that the slower runner win — a twisted ankle or sprained knee on the final turn of the race causes the swifter runner to stumble — and so we honor and praise God while also recognizes that God brings down the proud and humbles them in the dust so that our eyes are pointed back to Him.
Evil times fall upon us suddenly. We can prepare for some things, but not for every eventuality. It is a reminder again that God is sovereign over our days. Nevertheless, we labor and prepare as best as we can for those events and struggle through them in grace to the glory of our King.
“Go eat your bread with jubilation and drink your wine with a good heart, for God is already pleased with your labor. At all times, let your garments be white and let the oil on your head not be lacking. Look after life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun — all your vain days — for it is your possession in life and in your anxiety with which you are anxious under the sun. Everything that your hand finds to do, do it in strength for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol to which you are going.”
Much as the verses before have done for us, Solomon continues to lay out a secular view of life that is lived “under the sun.” And so, you might as well work hard and enjoy your life because the grave (Sheol) is calling and none of your labors and none of your wisdom will follow you into the grave. You’ve earned your bread, you might as well enjoy it while you still can.
Funny thing. If one took a secular humanistic worldview, one would think this would be enough. Eat your bread, drink your wine, enjoy your wife, and let your garments be white and the oil consecrate your head (a sign of celebration — in contrast to the ashes and sackcloth of mourning). Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Is this not what the Apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:21)? Indeed, it is what the Apostle Paul says if there is no resurrection. Is that not what the prophet Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 22:13)? Indeed, it is what the prophet Isaiah wrote if you have no one to atone for your sins. So, if you are outside of the grace of God, what more can you do but to eat, drink, and be merry…yet, how often that is not enough. How often unbelievers and professing atheists are depressed by the implications of their worldview. How often atheists who convert to Christianity have said, “I didn’t believe God existed and I was angry with God for not-existing.” It is not enough, and we all know that deep down in the depths of our heart. Bur for the unbeliever living his life “under the sun,” it is the best for which he can hope.
Solomon is not done setting the stage for the solution to the problems of life, there is more despair and tragedy to come…that is, under the sun. Praise be to God that our lives need not be constrained to being lived “under the sun.” Praise be to God that we can know salvation in the Son of God and be delivered from the despair that the sun reveals in our lives. And if you are sitting in this same despair today, then do not settle for what you have “under the sun,” but repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for your salvation. He is the only escape from the grave.
“For he who is joined with all the living is confident, for to be a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die and there is nothing that the dead know; they no longer have wages because the memory of them has been forgotten. Further, their love and even their hatred and envy has already perished. Forever and ever they have no share in what is done under the sun.”
Again, the emphasis of Solomon’s language here is “under the sun.” Though a person’s soul lives forever, some to glory and others to eternal punishment, when we die and our bodies are laid in the grave, we no longer have ownership in what is done “under the sun.” The good things we do as well as the bad things will eventually be forgotten. Indeed, for some it will take longer than for others, nevertheless, in time each and every one of us will be little more than a name on a tombstone and if the Lord tarries sufficiently long, even our tombstones will crumble into dust.
To some, this may be depressing. We look at our lives and we realize how many things we have not yet accomplished but that we would yet like to do. I look at my own “bucket list” of things to do and recognize that it is pretty extensive. Yet, I too am reminded by Solomon that what it is that we do here will be forgotten — and I remember the words of the Apostle Paul that the things of heaven are utterly better than even the best of things on earth.
But does that mean we ought not bother striving to accomplish things on earth? Of course not. The question we must ask, though, when building things on earth is: “For whose Kingdom am I laboring?” If you are laboring for your own kingdom, you labor in vain. It will pass away into dust and be forgotten. If you labor for Christ’s Kingdom, that is different. For while you and me will pass away and be forgotten, the Kingdom of Christ will last forever (2 Peter 1:11). And thus, while our contributions to that Kingdom will be forgotten, the fruit of those contributions will last — all to the glory of our great God and King, Jesus.
“Everything is the same for everyone; there is one condition — to the righteous, to the wicked, to the good, to the clean, to the unclean, to the one bringing a sacrifice, to the one who does not bring a sacrifice. It is for the good man and the sinner alike — to the one who pledges an oath and to the one who fears making the pledge. This is an evil with respect to all that is done under the sun because there is one condition for all. Also, the heart of the sons of man is full of evil — blindness is in their hearts while they live — after which they go toward death.”
On the surface, these words can seem rather depressing…unless you pay close attention to the phrase, “under the sun.” Once again, Solomon is offering an earthly perspective and if one rests in the earthly perspective alone, then there is little more than despair — everyone dies. As we have noted before, it is the great equalizer. Further, good things happen to the life of the wicked and bad things happen in the life of the saint…under the sun.
Up until this point I have resisted making a contrast between those things done “under the sun” and those things done “under the Son” — that is, under Jesus Christ. That is a convenient little bit of wordplay, but it only makes sense in English and not in Hebrew. Yet, while the wordplay is artificial, the principle to which it points is not. There is a different perspective one gets when one looks at things from a position of faith and the promise of salvation from eternal judgment.
The sad thing is that often Christians do not make that distinction. Often they find themselves in deep frustration and depression because they see that other people have such good things and they are struggling just to eek out a living. Yet, beloved, what are these slight affliction in comparison to the eternal weight of glory for which we are headed in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:17)? Those who worry and complain about their lot lack the perspective we need to walk through this life in faith. Those believers who have been blessed with abundance too struggle, but against a sense of self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. Indeed, the Christian life is not for those who are faint of heart.
Indeed, we all go on toward death…what is next makes all the difference in the world.
“For all of this I set my heart to — to examine all these things which the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Also that love and even hate are not known by man, yet both are before him.”
As we saw in the previous verses, Solomon has shifted to reflecting on God’s sovereignty — and here we get as plain a statement as any as to the matter: All things that are done are in the hand of God even though man does not always understand such things. We face instances in our lives where we will love and where we will hate…or where we will face the hatred of others. And while we may not understand these things and while our minds may be boggled by the hatred that some people will have in their hearts, all these things are held in the hands of God. He is sovereign and has a purpose and a plan for even the most wicked of events…in each case, ordaining and using the sin of man in a sinless way.
Jesus says that there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6), yet be at peace because the end is not yet. Too often people give up on the world around them thinking that with all of the bad things taking place, Jesus must be coming in the near future (as we, humans, refer to nearness). Yet it has not been God’s timing. The end days began at the Resurrection of Christ (Hebrews 1:2) and we (the Church) have been working in the world and waiting ever since. The answer to the wars and violence in our world today is not that we retreat and wait for Jesus to return; the answer is to engage this world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These events that take place around us — shootings in Pittsburgh, wars in Ukraine, and evil acts perpetrated against the poor and the weak all around us — they should remind us first of the urgency to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to these people. All too often the church is silent; it is time for the church to rise up and be the church — being a buttress and pillar of Truth, tearing down the strongholds of hell all around us, and pointing people toward the only savior — the only name by which man may be saved — Jesus Christ. Good works and good thoughts only leave us condemned — the world needs a redeemer and we have been given the task of going and making disciples of all men.
“When I gave my heart over to know wisdom and to see the affairs which are done on the earth because of how in the day and in the night its eyes are also not seeing sleep, then I saw all the work of God which man is not able to discover, which is done under the sun. Man toils to seek it and will not find it out. Also, if a wise man claims to know, he is not able to find it.”
They say that New York City is the City that never sleeps. I think that in the modern era there are more and more cities that can lay claim to that motto. It seems that across the western world, sleep is being downplayed and the eternally open eye is what is being celebrated. Sauron lives not just in the world of Middle Earth, but in Europe, America, and elsewhere. Yet, Solomon reminds us in Psalm 127:2 that one of God’s gifts to his beloved is sleep.
And so, Solomon seeks to discern all of the affairs that take place on this earth, day and night — during the activities where most are awake and at times when most are asleep, and his conclusion is that it is frustrating and impossible. It is not something that one can discern. He wonders at the sovereign work of God as it takes place across the earth and says that even if a man is wise, this he is not able to discover.
There is wisdom here that speaks to our modern and post-modern age. Within modernism comes the notion that the reason of man is able to discover and discern all things. Within post-modernity is the notion that each person creates their own definitions of reality. Both views are nothing short of a reflection of the arrogance of man. The more we discover about those things that take place “under the sun,” the more we are forced to recognize that those things that take place are infinitely more complex than what we thought at first. It must humble us and drive us to the recognition that it is God who is sovereign and infinite in knowledge, not man…no matter how hard we strive.
And so, while it is good to strive and to learn, we must be careful not to slip into the error of New York City and places such as these who promote a lifestyle that extends across both day and night. Remember, God gives to his beloved sleep…and God’s beloved are able to sleep because we trust that God holds all things in the palm of his hand.
“I continually sing praises to joy of which there is nothing better for man under the sun because if one eats and drinks and is joyful it will go with him during his anxiety during the days of his life which has been given to him by God under the sun.”
Like so many passages is this book, a surface reading of the text, or a reading that is taken in isolation of the rest of the book, will lead you astray. Here is not Solomon’s commercial for a hedonistic life — eat, drink, and be merry because that will balance out all of the terrible things that accompany life in this fallen world. While some have read the text in this way, it is a profound misunderstanding of what Solomon is saying.
First of all, we need to remind ourselves of the nature of joy as in the Hebrew there are a number of words that we would translate as such into English. In this case, the word שִׂמְחָה (simchah) is most commonly used in the context of the joy of God’s people in worship. So, even there, we begin to see Solomon’s focus. For Solomon is not praising joy in the abstract or even praising joy in the way that later Greek Hedonists would. He is praising a specific kind of joy that transcends our worldly experience as it is rooted in the worship of the divine.
But what of the eating and drinking? Indeed, it is eating and drinking and being joyful. How often in both modern and ancient times, God’s people choose to eat together and drink together in fellowship around the worship of our great and glorious God. God has provided food for our bellies from the richness of the ground just so that we can eke out a miserable existence, but he provides an abundance of foods and flavors from the ground which can be combined in new and creative ways to create joy for the palate. And for this, God’s people give God thanks and that thanks is poured out into our worship. So indeed, the fellowship we have around the table with other believers in the context of worship aids us as we go through the anxieties and cares of our daily lives, but more importantly, it points us to the joy of worship.
Yet, how often, even professing believers rob themselves of that joy. Worship gets placed low on the priority list or it is treated as a passive activity rather than one with which the believer participates and engages. The singing of God’s people and their eagerness to learn the Word of God are two indications of the joy they have in the Worship of the Lord. If this describes your worship, or if you dread “going to church,” or if you find your worship “unfulfilling or dull” then let me challenge you to look within before you criticize what is going on around you. Ask yourself, “How am I preparing for worship and how am I engaging in it?” Even a funny movie will be dull and bland if you watch it with a bored and disinterested attitude. This is the worship of our Almighty God! So much better than a movie and an expression of joy in a Christian’s life! Take that to heart as you prepare for worship on this Sabbath day.
“There is vanity which is done on the earth where there are righteous ones who have thrown down on them as if their deeds were wicked; and there are wicked ones who have thrown down on them as if their deeds were righteous. As I said, this also is vanity.”
This is a theme that we have seen several times in this book. Sadly, it happens in life enough that it seems clear to Solomon that it needs to be addressed. But sometimes, at the heart of the matter, the wicked seem to be rewarded and the righteous seem to be punished. As is sometimes said, “no good deed goes unpunished.” This is vanity…or as Rabbi Shalom Yitzhaki (Rashi) worded it, “There is a futility which confounds mankind…”
Indeed, this futility does compound mankind until we recognize one great truth. We are not righteous…no not one (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:10). We are wicked sinners…every single one of us…you and me both. And when the judgment of the wicked gets poured down on our heads the best that we can rightly say is, “Dear Lord, I deserve this and so much more.” And, when even the smallest good thing happens in our lives, the best that we can rightly say is, “Dear Lord, this is but from your abundant grace and it is not what I deserve.”
Were we to receive what was just, this earth would be Hell — stripped of all light and good things — with no hope of deliverance. As terrifying as this world can be at times, it would be worse…infinitely worse. All good — in the life of both the Christian and the non-Christian is an expression of God’s grace. Yet, how often we take that grace for granted and do not marvel in wonder at why God would extend grace to sinners such as we are.
We’ve been told a lie. Our society has told us that we are not so bad. It has told us that if we work hard, provide for our children, are faithful to our spouses, and obey the civil law (at least when the authorities are watching) that we are basically good people. Basically moral, yes, but not basically good. The Pharisees were basically moral people but Jesus called them children of the Devil (John 8:44). As John Newton rightly wrote… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Do you know what a wretch is? Do you know that Newton was not just talking about himself? The words speak of you and me.
So, when we pursue sin, we demonstrate the hold that worldly wickedness has on our lives. When we choose not to fight to resist sin (I mean, really resist it), we demonstrate that we don’t care. And, when we do resist sin, it is a clear demonstration of God’s grace at work in us through faith and there is no credit that we can claim of our own.
I have said many times that what bothers me is not so much the Christian who sins — we all will so long as we are in this fallen world — what bothers me are those who profess to be Christian and think they are without major sin and Christians who do not grieve over and repent of their sins. That’s when they become dangerous because clearly they do not understand grace. Solomon is right, as they see the world, it is something that is vanity and confounds all expectations.
And, so as a sinner writing to sinners, my prayer is that we keep this great truth of our unworthiness before our eyes. We owe everything to Christ and to God’s grace who saved us because he ordained that we be in Christ. That, my friends, must be our starting point because unless we start there we shall not repent when we sin. Unless we start there we will not have a godly hatred for our sin. And unless we start there we will never appreciate God’s amazing grace.
“Yet, goodness will not be with the wicked nor will his days be prolonged like a shadow; for he does not fear before the face of God.”
While a shadow is insubstantial, it spreads out across the land and casts its darkness upon more and more as the day grows longer. Though, from our perspective, the lives of the wicked sometimes seem full and long, they are not absolute. God will not permit the wicked’s shadow to consume the land forever. While God is often long-suffering, he will not exalt those who do not fear him.
How often, though, during those times and seasons where the wicked are casting their shadow about, it seems that they are all-encompassing. At times it can seem like God is honoring their every wish and desire. While at times like this, we often encourage our hearts with the knowledge that one day the wicked will stand before God’s throne of judgment and he will avenge his name, we should also remember that often God raises up the wicked like this in life only for the purpose of bringing them crashing to the ground. And in doing so, God reveals to us that the shadow of these men is just that — a shadow — insubstantial and without lasting consequence. Such are the ways of the wicked.
“As a sinner will do evil one hundred times and his life will still be long, I know as well that there will be good for the ones who fear God because they fear before his face.”
Growing up, my parents used to say to me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” And that is exactly what Solomon is seeking to communicate. He is saying, “Yes, there are many people who do evil things that seem to get ahead…but just because they do, don’t emulate them — for every story of a person doing evil things and yet having a long life, there is the story of godly people also living long and quiet lives.” Yet, why is there good for those who live godly lives? It is simply because they fear the Lord.
How indeed we are to fear the Lord as we live out our lives. It is the source of wisdom and knowledge, but the fear of the Lord is also the beginning of a life of peace. Why is that? It is because in the fear of the Lord we are brought to Christ and to holiness, without which, no one will see the face of the Lord.
How many people are there out there that attend churches and are active in leadership roles even, but who are proud and forceful, relying on their stature or power to bring about their will, not on God to bring about his own will. And while yes indeed, such as these sometimes seem to get ahead, we need not emulate them, for God will also take care of his own and one day the wicked will stand before such a God in judgment.
“As the decision that is not swiftly acted upon regarding an evil deed, the heart of men is set upon them to do evil.”
The idea of injustice can be approached in two ways. On one hand, there is injustice when the innocent are punished for a crime that they did not commit. On the other hand, if a punishment that ought to be given is not given then that too is unjust. The first instance is a personal injustice and the second is a societal injustice. In the first case, the unjustly accused suffers and in the second case, society as a whole suffers.
While Solomon recognizes the first case (and speaks to it often), the second case is where his focus is at the moment. When the law determines that such and such is an appropriate penalty for a crime and a decision to punish is made by the judge, but that decision is not acted upon, then an injustice is done and the law, that is designed to protect the people, brings harm to the people because it ceases to be a deterrent for sin for the broader community.
We all know that in our homes, when raising children, if you threaten a punishment but never act upon that punishment then the children will cease to obey. The same exists in the workforce. If the boss threatens to fire you unless you do “X” (whatever that might be), but he never fires anyone, then the employees will cease to listen to his threats and will do whatever they think is best. If church leadership threatens to excommunicate someone but never acts on the threat, people will not respond and the leadership will lose the respect of the congregation as a whole.
If sin is not acted upon by the powers that God has put into place in this world, then we tend to set our hearts on sin. So says Solomon; so says human experience.
“And so I saw the wicked being buried — they entered the holy place and they repeatedly walked about but they are forgotten in the city where they worked. This also is vanity.”
Funerals are odd times in the life of a family and of a community. And I mean that with no disrespect. On the one hand, it is a time of grief over the one who has passed away, but on the other hand, they bring together family and friends in a way that rarely happens in the life of a family…apart from that of a funeral. Further, funerals are times of remembrance, but sometimes memories have a funny way of hiding themselves until other memories bring them about. Further, even the wicked are typically remembered fondly for some of the things they have done.
As Solomon reflects on life in this book, he often comes back to the notion of death — it is the great equalizer in the life of man. And so, he observes even as the wicked are buried some of the same things are said of them as are said of all men — they performed their religious duties and they did good works in the city. Again, we can say good things about even the most wicked people we have met…if we are honest, that is. Yet, they are forgotten. Then again, how many of the things done by righteous men will go forgotten as well. As a pastor, I have long lamented that the life of a man or a woman is reduced to a few paragraphs (if that) in the obituary column of a newspaper. How much more they did in their years…this indeed is something for we who remain to remember. The forgetfulness seems to imply that our works were in vain, yet, in God’s sovereign providence, they are not. It is all a matter of perspective.
Do not forget the works of those who have passed and do not let them pass on into oblivion — even the wicked. For in God’s design, even the wicked have their place and purpose.
“There is not a man endowed with power of spirit who can withhold the spirit nor is he mighty in the day of death. Further, there is no release from war and wickedness will not deliver those whom it has mastered. All of this I have seen as I gave me heart to all the work which is done under the sun in which man has power over man to do evil to him.”
When comes the day of death, no man has the power to retain his spirit — man cannot hold onto his days beyond that which God has numbered. It is neither our place nor our power. Further, as our dead bodies lay where they may — in hospitals, in beds at home, on battlefields, or in tragic circumstances — not one of our corpses is mighty or powerful. No matter the power we had in life; it is sacrificed in death. All this, Solomon says, he has learned as he has observed the works of men (note that some commentators consider verse 9 as an introduction to a new section, but I would hold that the “all of this” mentioned has to do with what has been already said, not with what is about to be stated).
And so we are left with an application of the text that is pretty straight-forward. Yet, we might suggest, in the hindsight of the New Testament, an additional reading of this text. For, when God has ordained that a man or woman be given a new spirit — regenerating the person — once again, a person is unable to stop God’s divine hand (we would call this “Irresistible Grace”). In other words, we might fight against the Spirit for a season, but who can withhold or restrain Him? Apart from regeneration, we are spiritually dead and the dead are not mighty, they just lay there unable to do anything on their own. Clearly, this is not the thrust of what Solomon is thinking about, but Jesus does remind us that the Spirit goes where he wills and no man knows where he comes or where he goes (John 3:8). Who can resist Him?
“The one who keeps a commandment does not know an evil thing; a time and a judgment the wise heart will know, because for every matter there is a time and a judgment for the evil of man is great upon him and because he does not know what is to be for that which is to be, who can declare it to him?”
How do you know what to do when you are faced with making a decision? Surely, we do not know the end from the beginning…that is God’s purview (Isaiah 46:10). We do not know what tomorrow brings and there is no one who can tell us, for mediums and fortune tellers are an abomination to the Lord (Leviticus 19:31; Isaiah 8:19); they are charlatans and demon followers. So, where are we to turn when making judgments in life?
The only place we can faithfully turn is to the Lord, who is the maker of the heavens and the earth and who has ordained all things that are to take place. How shall we do that? We turn to His Word. Yet, when the word does not give us a clear indication on the decision we are to make, what then? The answer is that if we obey the commandments of the Lord that are found in the Word, then we will not be led into paths of evil.
True, that is sometimes easier said than done. Nevertheless, that is God’s call upon his people and that is the counsel that Solomon is offering here — obey God’s commands and you will not know the evil thing. A wise man knows the time to act and that time is governed always and eternally by the very word of God. So, study the commandments that you might obey them and then obey them when you are faced with times of decision. Trust the outcome into God’s hands and know that evil will remain far from you.
“Do not make haste to go from before him; do not stand for an evil thing, for he does whatever he pleases. The word of the king is mighty. Who can say, ‘What are you doing?’”
It amazes me that every election cycle there is a group of people who say, “If so in so wins the election, I am moving to Canada” or to some other part of the world. Yet, when said candidate wins, they never go anywhere. The fact is, they have it too good in America. Idle threats avail nothing.
Solomon says to us that we ought not hasten to leave the presence of the king — we ought not break our allegiances on a whim, in other words. Sometimes, because we do not see the big picture, we are tempted to protest what those in authority over us might be doing, but often those protests merely stem from the fact that we do not understand what said people understand.
At the same time, do not stand for that which is genuinely evil or wicked. In other words, there are times to break allegiances; we just need to ensure that we break allegiances for exactly the right reasons. They must not be for selfish reasons or matters of preference, but instead for reasons where to stay would be to sin.
Yet, Solomon also gives us a word of warning. In a land with a king, the king’s word is law and there may be repercussions that follow from breaking allegiances. And, while most of us do not live in nations with a king nor serve a king directly, we sometimes forget that if we work for a private company, often our boss’ word is law. In the life of the church, word of Christ is Law (and the Elders’ have a divine commission to govern the church in that law!). And in America, at least in principle, the Law is meant to be king. Don’t break from these things too rashly; if you do, you will likely regret having done so. God’s law will never cause you to sin; but if man’s law does, that is the only context where Solomon is saying you must then break allegiance.
“I hold that you must guard the mouth of the king on the basis of God’s oath.”
For the Christian, resorting to riots or refusing to submit to governmental authorities is not an option…no matter how much we might agree with or disagree with his or her politics. In America, regardless of what you might think of Mr. Trump or his character, the actions of those who opposed him were often quite shameful, at least from a Christian perspective. The Apostle Paul insists that we understand that God is sovereign even over the appointment of leaders (Romans 13:2) and that these are ministers of God (Romans 13:6). You might say, “Yes, but,” but when Paul was writing this, Nero was the Caesar over Rome and no matter what you think of Mr. Trump or Mr. Obama before him, neither hold a candle to the evil that Nero commanded during his years in power.
Most of our translations render this — “the command of the king” respecting the context and that commands are issued by the mouth, yet the text more literally reads as it is rendered above. The more curious thing that we see within this verse is that it begins with the word אֲנִי (aniy) — “I,” but it stands alone, connected to “the mouth of the king” only by accent markings. To make sense of this, the translators tend to insert something to read, “I tell you:” or “I say:” The real question here is whether this is an instruction of Solomon or whether he is using this construction to remind the people that he is the king and that these words are coming from his mouth, so, pay attention. The answer to this is something we cannot provide on this side of the veil. It does seem to add some emphasis and to draw attention to itself — like saying to us, “folks, this is really important to understand.”
And why must we guard the commands or keep the commands of the King? It is because of God’s oath to the king — as is spoken of by Paul above. God has placed that king in control of that region — he has placed those Elders in authority in the church — he has placed that father in authority in your home — he has placed that manager in authority over you at work, etc… — so, obey his commands.
But, it raises the question, does one ever have the right to disobey the commands of the King? Peter gives us the answer — that if those commands would cause us to sin, we have a moral obligation to obey the commands of God and not the commands of man (Acts 5:29). Does this mean that revolution always must have a moral cause and not just a practical motivation? For the Christian, yes, it must. And so, even if we look back to the founding of our nation, our early American fathers found themselves at an impasse. On one hand, they had been elected to rule over the people and to protect those in their care. On the other hand, their superior, the King of England, was demanding that the people of the American colonies be treated badly. They identified that their Christian responsibility to protect and provide for the people outweighed their responsibility to submit to an immoral king. And so, on the basis of Biblical offenses, as is outlined in the Declaration of Independence, they declared their independence.
Might that happen again in America? Perhaps. My prayer, though, is that our politicians that represent us in the government can get beyond their prejudices and legislate rules and laws that govern us in a way that honors God and that enables us to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
“Who is like the wise and who knows the meaning of a thing? The wisdom of a man illuminates his face and the might of his face is made to change.”
One could even translate the first part of this clause, “Who is like the wise and who knows the meaning of a word…” And indeed, this is the case. Wisdom reveals the meaning behind actions, items, events, and even words — whether it is simply a matter of knowing what is being said so that a proper response might be given or of reading between the lines when someone is seeking to guard their words carefully, wisdom is the tool that can reveal what is true from what is false.
Now, when we begin with the reminder that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), thus recognizing that only the believer is capable of wisdom and that wisdom grows and matures as one grows closer to the living God through his Son, Jesus Christ, then that helps us understand the language of a face so illuminated. For just as Moses’ face shone after being in the presence of God and speaking with Him (Exodus 34:29), so too the wise man’s face glows after immersing himself in the Word of God found in the Scriptures.
And thus, the might of his face changes — it changes from the arrogance of a man who knows things as a result of his own energy and efforts to the humility of one who knows things as a result of their deep relationship with the Almighty God. How indeed, when you sit with the wise, their face — their whole countenance begins to almost glow as they share truth with those in their midst. At the same time, how often, we take for granted the wise around us and do not use every opportunity to learn wisdom from them.
“You need to see that this is what I have found, says the preacher: one to one to find a conclusion — that which my soul still continually seeks but I have not found — one man in a thousand I have found but a woman in all these I have not found. But see this alone I have found: God made man upright but they sought after great ambitions.”
The phrase “one to one” is a figure of speech that refers to piecing a puzzle together piece by piece. Solomon, as a student of wisdom and knowledge, is saying that he has painstakingly done his research to arrive at a conclusion, something that he has not been finding with adequate success — that is a righteous man of wisdom. He says that perhaps there is one in a thousand, though even here, there is the implication in the tone of what he is saying that this is a stretch. And he goes on to say that of these, he is not finding women as such.
Does that mean that Solomon thinks that all women are harlots and wish to bind your hands as mentioned in verse 26. Certainly not. The scriptures are filled with women of noble character and Solomon closes his proverbs with a song to just such a woman. Indeed, even the Shepherd Girl of the Song of Solomon is a woman of integrity. He is saying essentially that if he is only finding one righteous man in a thousand, it is even less so amongst the women he has found. And we must remember the nature of most of the women that Solomon had around him — pagan treaty-brides who seduced him into sacrificing to their idols. It is pretty easy to see how Solomon’s perception may have been skewed somewhat.
But this alone, Solomon says he has found. God made man upright (think Adam and Eve), but man has sought after many plans, many schemes (as some Bibles render this) or, man has had great ambitions. Think the tone of the conversations around the building of the tower of Babel. Man seeks to ascend to the divine. It stems back to the sin of Adam and Eve and continues into our own day where people place their own reason and their own ideas over the revelation of God. How great is Babylon’s fall!