Ecclesiastes 3: God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time — but he’s left us in the dark.
One of the famous parts of Ecclesiastes is his “a time to plant and another to reap” section in which he lists all the opposites of life and decides they all have their proper place. The writer is impressed by all God has done in the world, but frustrated that he can’t understand the meaning of it all. I played golf with a fellow who had a long pre-shot routine that he went through every time he hit the ball. He shuffled his feet a specific way, waggled the club for what seemed to be an eternity, and then stood frozen over the ball before finally hitting his horrible slice. I wanted to shout out, “Just hit the ball!” No doubt, he needed some golfing lessons, but even I could see that he was over-thinking his golf swing. He had himself tied up in knots and it created, not an athletic, fluid golf shot, but a poor shot and a frustrated golfer. Solomon is frustrated that, after all his thinking and considering, he can’t understand all God does. He decides that “there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.” That isn’t a ticket to living an immoral, God-ignoring life, but it’s a reminder that life is a gift of God and if we over-think it we, like my golfer friend, will spend way too much time out in the weeds rather than enjoying the beauty that has been freely given to us.
Take Away: Life is a gift meant to be enjoyed.
Experimenting on oneself
Ecclesiastes 2: I said to myself, “Let’s go for it — experiment with pleasure, have a good time.”
One of the experiments of Solomon is to see if pleasure produces lasting happiness. As a powerful king he has all the resources necessary for this experiment. He builds exquisite palaces and gardens, acquires an army of servants, amasses enormous wealth, and fills his life with beautiful women. He reports, “Everything I wanted I took.” Many people at least attempt this approach to happiness, although few have the resources to pull it off. Because of that, they remain convinced that just a little more of this or that will do the trick. They think that once they arrive at that point they’ll be truly satisfied. Solomon, though, does have it all. Not only that, he goes into this experiment with his eyes wide open. His verdict? Solomon says it’s all like collecting smoke. He’s left empty and even dejected. He says he worked hard at making it all happen, expecting to arrive at a place of personal happiness and satisfaction. “Surely,” he thought to himself, “just one more palace, just another million dollars, just the right woman and everything will come together.” However, he ends up thinking it’s all a waste of time. In spite of this ancient verdict of Solomon, we still tend to believe the big lie that not only is pleasure the answer, but that it’s all there really is to life. It’s no wonder that “taking up the cross” is such a foreign language to us.
Take Away: Happiness isn’t found in possessions. It can only be found by the way of the cross.
Searching for answers to the big questions of life
Ecclesiastes 1: These are the words of the Quester, David’s son and king in Jerusalem.
The Greek word “Ecclesiastes” is generally translated “the Preacher” or “the Teacher.” The name of this book of the Bible is taken from the opening words in which the writer, Solomon, gives himself that title. The book is about Solomon’s quest for meaning, how he tries many of the things people still try today, and how he concludes that none of them live up to their promise. In The Message, Peterson picks up on the “quest” of Solomon and calls him, “the Quester” rather than “the Preacher.” In other words, the emphasis is on the search for meaning, happiness, and satisfaction rather than on the proclamation of the result of that search. Solomon wants more than power, wealth, fame, peace, and success. Having tried them all, he’s convinced that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Actually, Ecclesiastes doesn’t try very hard to give us “the answer” but it does a good job of asking “the question” concerning the search for answers to the big questions of life.
Take Away: Like the writer of Ecclesiastes people today still search for meaning.
The Good Wife
Proverbs 31: A good woman is hard to find, and worth more than diamonds.
The final portion of Proverbs is called the “Hymn to a Good Wife.” Apparently, it comes from the mother of someone called King Lemuel. His identity is another of those minor mysteries. Some people think that Solomon is actually speaking of himself and the words of wisdom come from Bathsheba. However, that appears to only be based on a desire to keep this “all in the family.” Others say that the final chapter of Proverbs is from the same fellow who gave us the second to the last chapter, good old Agur Ben Yakeh — another person we know nothing about. Again, this is just stuff that has no major significance but is interesting to think about. I can’t help but smile when I realize that the much quoted tribute to a good wife was probably written by a woman! Still, it is nice to see such positive words about women who love and serve their family; women who make a difference in this world for their loved ones and for God. After all, if not for this passage, what would preachers use for a text on Mother’s Day? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding!)
Take Away: If you’ve found a “good woman” treat her right and thank God for her!
Good old Agur Ben Yakeh
Proverbs 30: There is no God…I can do anything I want!
Some of the final pages of Proverbs are attributed to Agur Ben Yakeh. Aside from the name and that he is from a town or country called Massa we’re pretty much in the dark about him. The name, I’m told, doesn’t appear to be Israelite, but is more Arab sounding. Of course, Solomon rules a vast empire and has friendly relations with many countries. It may be that Agur Ben Yakeh is considered to be a very wise man in his home country and that Solomon agrees, collecting his sayings and including him in his book of Proverbs. However, there’s a bit of a problem with this idea because the nation of Israel alone worships Jehovah God at this time. Clearly, the words of Agur Ben Yakeh are those of a worshiper of God. I know these little things are often of more interest to me than to others, but it is kind of fun to think about this ancient mystery. If the identity of Ben Yakeh is mysterious, his opening proverb is pretty straight forward. He isn’t impressed by people who doubt the existence of God. They may think they can ignore God and his commandments but when they do it isn’t the commandments that get broken! The wise man says “every promise of God proves true.” He warns those who doubt that to reconsider, warning, “he might take you to task and show up your lies.” The day’s coming when everyone will believe in God. After all, we’ll stand before him in Judgment. Those who doubt will be convinced, but for them, it will be too late. The One they have doubted and ignored, will “take them to task.”
Take Away: Sooner or later everyone will believe in God – it’s better to be part of the “sooner” crowd.
Do you want fries with that?
Proverbs 29: If you let people treat you like a doormat, you’ll be quite forgotten in the end.
Not long ago we stopped off at a fast food restaurant for a quick burger. I was taken with the quiet confidence and good nature of the young lady who took our order. The job she’s doing isn’t the highest paying, but she’s doing it with real class. Like many people who are “flipping burgers” that job is just a temporary stopping point for her along the way. The point of this proverb isn’t that we’re to demand respect, refusing to be anyone’s doormat. Instead, it’s that we’re to do whatever it is we do with excellence and pride and that will, in itself, demand respect. Those who think they’re “saving” their best for some dream job and just “getting by,” giving the least effort possible in some temporary place in life, are the ones who are accepting the “doormat” position in life. That young lady who was asking “would you like to super-size that order?” gets it and I seriously doubt she’s in danger of being forgotten in the end.
Take Away: A person can do whatever they do with class – and when they do, people take note.
No one way praying allowed
Proverbs 28: God has no use for the prayers of people who won’t listen to him.
I believe in prayer and consider myself to be a prayer learner. I’ve read books about it, talked about it, and practiced it. I’ve learned that there are different ways to pray. For instance, a person can kneel by their bedside or sit in an easy chair with a cup of coffee or write out a prayer or take a “prayer walk.” These and several other approaches are good ways to pray. One deal breaker to prayer is what is stated in this proverb: one way praying. Prayer is intended to be a conversation with God. It isn’t about my airing my list of wants and concerns while God patiently stands by like the waitress in a restaurant taking an order. I’ve found that, generally speaking, it’s my perspective that’s changed in prayer. The wise man of the proverbs reminds me of the conversational nature of prayer. Of course, there’s another aspect of “listening” here. When I spend time in the Presence of God and he does speak I’m to listen to what he says. That is, I’m to take it to heart and move forward in obedience. Often, I’ve found, God intends to use me in answer to my own prayers. He has work for me to do and, no matter how fervently I continue to pray, nothing will come of it until I start listening to what the Lord’s saying to me.
Take Away: Often, the Lord intends to use us in answer to our own prayers
Proverbs 27: You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another.
I’ve visited several internet forums and have seen this proverb quoted once in a while. Sometimes it’s used in an appropriate way and other times it is just an excuse for arguing. Having been raised in the church I’ve seen people banging one another on the head with their Bibles enough to know that all religious debate is not “sharpening.” In fact, bludgeoning someone with Scripture probably is somewhat dulling. Often on the internet, debate consists of two stubborn people posturing and talking past one another. Of course, such arguments aren’t limited to the internet. For sharpening to take place the participants have to be willing to actually engage one another: “I already know what I think, but I want to understand what you think.” A real key here is the “friend” factor. I know that the word “friend” is missing from the original language, but I do think that the concept is assumed. A stranger only wants to win the debate. However, a friend cares more about me than he cares about proving himself right. It’s only in that kind of relationship that this proverb works. As I deal with some issue with a person who I know cares about me personally, I’m “sharpened.” Who knows, maybe he’s sharpened too.
Take Away: Friendship, mutual respect, open-mindedness – these are keys to having a “sharpening” disagreement.
Running out of wood can be a good thing
Proverbs 26: When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
As a pastor I have a pretty strong influence on what happens at church. There is, I suppose, always the chance that someone will attempt to take control of a church service but that’s unlikely. I have the main say concerning the order of worship and, of course, what is said in the sermon. However, what happens “out there” during the week is out of my control. Because of that, all the efforts on Sunday to create a loving, supportive family of God can be derailed if that same crowd spends the week fanning the flames of division. Knowing this is humbling to me and it reminds me that I’m not nearly as influential in my own church as I think I am. However, it also reminds me that my greatest resource is not my leadership ability. Instead, my greatest Resource is the One I serve. It’s my desire that the Lord will help me to love people even when they’re behaving in ways that cause pain. I want to personally set an example of how a sanctified Christian conducts himself, to help people who tend to gossip understand that there’s an underlying spiritual issue, and to pray that the Lord will exhaust their supply of “wood” sooner and not later that the church might be united in love for Christ and one another.
Take Away: Some issues will simply die out and go away if we stop fanning the flames.
Before you take that leap
Proverbs 25: Don’t jump to conclusions — there may be a perfectly good explanation for what you just saw.
This proverb reminds me of a story a good friend told me about himself. This pastor was visiting a lady, not one of his church members, who was at an advanced age. She asked him if he would take her to the store and the pharmacy to pick up a few things. He agreed. This lady had consumed a can of beer as part of her daily routine all her life. Apparently, along with needing some other items, she had run out of her supply of beer, so that was one of the items on her short shopping list. When she got back into the car, before he knew it, she popped the top on a can, remarking, “Whew, I need this!” He took her to the pharmacy down the street, and, once again, before he knew it, she thrust the open can into his hand, saying, “Hold this while I pick up my prescription.” He was sitting there in the car, holding an open can of beer when it seemed the Lord laughingly spoke to him, “Walter, I don’t want you to ever judge anyone by mere appearances again.” Had anyone who knew him walked by the car at that moment, word would have spread like wildfire that the Nazarene pastor was not only drinking — but was drinking and driving!
Take Away: As Jesus said, “judge not.”