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ECCLESIASTES: PART EIGHT

                                                PRESENTED ON 03-08-14

 

           Today will be the eight sermon in the series I began last September on the writings of Solomon in what is the called the Book of Ecclesiastes. As I covered in Sermon one of this series, we get the word Ecclesiastes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word kohayleth which means “to assemble” or the leader, speaker, teacher or preacher of the assembly.  Some translations such as the NIV and NET render verse one of chapter one as “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” 

       So as we continue to move though Ecclesiastes, we need to read it as a book of instruction being given by a teacher.  Now a teacher instructs based on what such teacher has learned and experienced and the same appears to be true with Solomon.  Having discussed the first six chapters of Ecclesiastics, it is apparent we are seeing life through the eyes of Solomon.  Solomon saw life through the lens of his own life’s experiences and his keen observation of what was happening all around him.  We saw this to be especially true in Chapter 6 where Solomon appears to be reflecting on the problems that were created by his involvement with many foreign wives.  

       Today we will begin Chapter 7 which is a lot like reading the Proverbs which are also attributed to Solomon.  As mentioned last time, we find recorded in 2 Kings 4 that Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.  He described plant life and taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom. 

       Chapter 7 is very eclectic.  It appears to be a running list of isolated observations and parallel sayings that sometimes seem connected and at other times not connected at all.  

       Ecclesiastics 7:1: A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.

       Here Solomon is making parallel statements.  He speaks of a good name being better than fine perfume.  What he is saying is that as good as a fine perfume is, a good name is even better.  He is making the point that both are good but one is better than the other.   This sets us up for his next statement that ones day of death is better than ones day of birth.  He is not saying ones day of birth is bad.  Obviously without a day of birth there would be no day of death. You have to be born in order to die.  But he is placing a value judgement on birth versus death.  In essence he is saying that as good as it is to be born it is even better to die.

       Now why would Solomon say such a thing?  As we saw in our discussion of Chapter 6, Solomon appears to reflect on some dark days in his life.  Chapter 7 is a continuation of Chapter 6 which is a continuation of all that has been said to this point.  Remember, there were no chapters and verses when Solomon wrote what he wrote.  It was a continuing string of dialog.  In fact we see through much of Chapters 1-6 that Solomon reflects somewhat negatively on life.  We see him engaged in an endless quest for greater understanding of the purpose in life and seemingly frustrated by not being able to find it.

       We can’t exactly know what Solomon meant by saying the day of death is better than the day of birth.  This saying may be an expression of his personal frustration at not being able to get a handle on the meaning of life and he saw death as a way out of this constant pursuit of trying to gain understanding.  We don’t know for sure what Solomon understood about life beyond the grave.  Some things he wrote would indicate he didn’t see life continuing beyond physical death.

       Ecclesiastes 9:10: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave,  where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

       It may be that Solomon was here thinking only in terms of the physical body not having any conscious activity after physical death.  One could conclude this because of what Solomon says later in speaking of the death of the physical body where he appears to be reflecting on what God said to Adam after the sin committed in the garden.

       Genesis 3:19: By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

       Ecclesiastes 12:7: the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

        We can’t be sure what Solomon understood about death by saying the spirit returns to God who gave it.  Did he simply mean the breath of life returns to God or did he mean a conscious, functioning entity returns to God?  When we discussed chapter three of Ecclesiastes, we saw Solomon make this statement:

       Ecclesiastes 3:21: Who knows if the spirit (ruah) of man rises upward and if the spirit (ruah) of the animal goes down into the earth?"  

       We discussed why Solomon would ask such a question and concluded this may simply have been a rhetorical question he was asking within the context of his acknowledgement of both man and animals being of the same breath and dying by having their breath leave them. 

       Did Solomon believe there was life after physical death?  Solomon was the Son of David. I mentioned in an earlier sermon i this series that in 2 Kings it’s recorded that Solomon wrote 1005 songs.  He apparently got his song writing ability from his father David.  David wrote multiple hundreds of songs we call psalms.  David makes a statement in one of his psalms that has always intrigued me.  It’s a statement we often hear recited in a funeral message.   

       Psalms 116:15: Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

       Why would David make such a statement?  If there was no life beyond physical death, how would the death of saints be precious in God’s sight?  I looked at about a dozen different translations of this verse and they all pretty much render it as seen in the NIV.  

       The Hebrew word translated “precious” is yahkahr and pretty much means in Hebrew what it does in English.  In English the word signifies something highly valued, much loved, or considered to be of great importance.  So we could easily translate Psalm 116:15 as:

       Highly valued, much loved and of great importance in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

       The NET Bible translates Psalm 116:15 as "The Lord values the lives of his faithful followers" and then provides the following footnote.

       Heb: “precious in the eyes of the Lord [is] the death of his godly ones.” The point is not that God delights in or finds satisfaction in the death of his followers! The psalmist, who has been delivered from death, affirms that the life-threatening experiences of God’s followers get God’s attention, just as a precious or rare object would attract someone’s eye.

       The translators of the NET Bible apparently are trying to make sense out of David’s statement by limiting its application to God recognizing the trials and tribulations of His saints even when such trials and tribulations lead to death and not that God actually delights in the death of His saints in some morbid sort of way.

       David, however, is not saying God delights in the death of His saints.  David says God sees the death of His saints as precious.  Precious is not the same as saying God delights or finds satisfaction in the death of His saints.  As already said, the word precious signifies something highly valued, much loved, or considered to be of great importance.  Could it be that David understood that there was life beyond physical death and was expressing this understanding in saying God finds the death of His saints precious because he knows that there is waiting for them a whole new dimension of life beyond the physical?

       If this was what David was expressing in the statement he made, he may have understood that there is life after physical death.  If David understood this to be the case, so maybe did his son Solomon.  Maybe Solomon made the statement he made about the day of death being better than the day of birth because he understood there was a greater dimension of life beyond physical death. 

       I have from time to time reflected on the fact that Christians who are ill and dying will often fight so hard to stay alive.  I would think that if we really believe that we have eternal life abiding in us as the Scriptures reveal, we would look forward to physical death.  Yes, I know that physical organisms, including us humans, are inherently programmed to want to stay alive.  I know there are the social dynamics of not wanting to leave our physical family and friends.  But if we really believe that through the Christ event we have eternal life in a much more glorious dimension of living, I would thing we would look forward to the day of death and consider it better than our day of birth. 

       While we can’t be certain what Solomon understood about life after death or exactly why he made the statements he did, we can make a statement with confidence that while our physical death brings to an end the life of the physical body, it begins the life of our spiritual body, a body that will be free from the sufferings we now all experience to one degree or another in this physical life.  We can make such a positive statement because of the Christ event.  We can make such a positive statement because of what Paul wrote.

       1 Corinthians 15:42-44: So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 

       I think we all are looking forward to having a glorious spiritual body that is imperishable and will never die.

       Ecclesiastes 7:2-4: It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.   The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

       Solomon continues here to focus on death.  On the surface, what Solomon is saying appears to be counter-intuitive.  Is it really better to go to a house of morning than a house of feasting?  Is sorrow really better than laughter?   Is a sad face really good for the heart? 

       We must remember, however, the context.  The context is Solomon’s contention that the day of ones death is better than the day of ones birth.  In saying what he says in verses 2-4, he is giving additional expression to this thesis.  All you men who went through speech training in what we used to call “Spokesmen’s Club” will remember that we always wanted to begin a speech with a “specific purpose statement” (SPS).  The rest of our speech would be constructed to support our SPS. 

       Solomon’ specific purpose statement is that the day of ones death is better than the day of ones birth. He then goes on to support his SPS by using a little hyperbole to drive home the point.  The Scriptures contain a lot of hyperbole.  This is especially true in the prophetic literature.  Hyperbole is rhetorical exaggeration.   It is using overstatement to get a point across.  In the past I have pointed out that we use hyperbole all the time in our speech.   We may say things like “The game last night was well attended, everyone was their.”   Really, everyone was there?  Of course what we really mean is that many supporters of the team were there. 

       What Solomon is apparently trying to get across is that since we all are going to die, we should not live our lives oblivious to that fact.  He says “death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.”   He appears to be instructing us to not go though life nonchalantly, failing to recognize that life is indeed quite short.  The temporariness of life and all things associated with life seems to be the primary focus in Solomon’s recorded narrative throughout Ecclesiastes.  As covered in my first sermon in this series, Solomon uses the phrase Meaningless, Meaningless some 38 times in Ecclesiastes. 

       Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:  The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:  "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (NIV).

       The word variously translated as “meaningless,” “vanity” and “futile” in different translations of Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word hebel (heh'bel). The phrase “meaningless, meaningless” is a doublet and signifies extreme meaninglessness.  It is a superlative construction that expresses the most extreme degree of meaning that a word can have.  The Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the OT gives the basic meaning of hebel as “breath,” most often used as “breath of the month.”  This word is also defined as empty or nothingness. 

       As I previously pointed out, in looking at the roots of the Hebrew hebel, it is revealed that this word indicates vapor, fog, steam, breeze and breath.  This is why Hebrew lexicons show this word to mean breath.  Now what is the common thread running through all of these roots of the word hebel?  They all describe something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary, short lived.  The word can be used to connote nothingness or emptiness.  This has led some scholars to see Solomon using hebel to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life. One commentator described hebel as being what is left over after a soap bubble bursts.  Life is like a soap bubble.  It appears for an instant and then it is gone.

       The Message Bible which is a paraphrase of the Scriptures which many Christians use renders hebel in Ecclesiastes 1:2: in this manner.

       Smoke, nothing but smoke, there is nothing to anything. All of life is smoke.

       In the beginning of Chapter 7, it is apparent Solomon is continuing his theme, found throughout Ecclesiastes, that life is indeed very temporal and fleeting.  While he makes a number of statements in Ecclesiastes about living life to the fullest, he also teaches that we must be cognizant of life’s fleeting nature and give serious thought to the fact our physical life is going to end.

       Beginning in verse 5, Solomon shifts gears and begins to make some heady observations about human behavior.

       Ecclesiastes 7:5-6:  It is better to heed a wise man's rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.

       In saying “It is better to heed a wise man's rebuke than to listen to the song of fools,” Solomon is simply saying you are going to benefit more from being corrected by someone who sees you for what you are and knows your need for correction than listening to someone praising you who may have a distorted view of you or is just trying to flatter you.

       Although the Hebrew word translate “song” in this passage does mean song in the Hebrew, it is of interest that in a footnote to verse 5, the NET Bible suggests there is an opposing parallel between rebuke and song which suggests the word song may be figurative for praise/flattery which is seen as music to the ears of the hearer.  The NEB (New English Bible) translation actually renders the word song as praise.

       Solomon writes "Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools.”  The word thorns refers to twigs from wild thorn bushes which were used as fuel for quick heat, but burned out quickly before a cooking pot can be properly heated.

       Psalms 118:10-12: All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them off. They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them off. 

       Solomon analogizes the short lived burning thorns to the laughter of fools.  This appears to be a continuation of Solomon’s instruction to heed the rebuke of a wise man rather than to listen to the song or praise of a fool.  The fools song or praise is fleeting while the correction of a wise man may have life changing significance.

       Ecclesiastes 7:7: Extortion turns a wise man into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.

       The Hebrew word translated “extortion” in the NIV is osheq (o-shek).  It can mean injury, fraud, distress, unjust gain, extortion, oppression, a thing deceitfully obtained.  There has been scholarly debate as to whether this word is better translated extortion or oppression here in verse 7.  While the NIV and several other translations render the Hebrew here as extortion, a number of other translations render it as oppression.   This same Hebrew word is rendered “oppression” in the NIV translations of 4:1 and 5:8 where the context shows it is the oppression of people that is being addressed.

       Ecclesiastes 4;1: Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-- and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-- and they have no comforter.

       In actuality, oppression and extortion pretty much mean the same thing.  To extort is to acquire something through the use of force or threats. That certainly is oppression as well.  The common dictionary definition of oppression is to be a source of worry, stress, or trouble to somebody and to subject a person or a people to a harsh or a cruel form of domination.

       Solomon is teaching that extortion/oppression is not the way to treat others.  When a person who may be considered wise in many respects begins to oppress others, he becomes a fool.  He is not exercising wisdom.  I have to wonder if Solomon was possibly reflecting on his own life here. 

       As I pointed out in a past sermon in this series, after Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became king and the people asked that he lift some of the heavy burden off their shoulders that Solomon had placed upon them.  When Rehoboam refused to do this and instead increased their burden, ten of the tribes revolted and formed a separate kingdom.  This would suggest Solomon had been oppressing his subjects to some extent.

       Much of the history of the world has involved oppression of the masses by leaders who fail to consider the needs of those they govern and instead take advantage of their position of power and authority to harshly dominate others.  Often the oppressed rise up in revolution and oust their leaders.  It happened in the Ukraine just recently.   The problem is that new leaders come to power and often end up oppressing the very ones that allowed them to come to power and the cycle of revolution and formation of new government continues without end.  This never ending cycle occurs largely because of the next observation Solomon makes in verse 7, “a bribe corrupts the heart.”

       Bribery, as is commonly understood, is the receiving of considerations in exchange for the granting of favors.  Simply said, I will give you this if you will give me that.   According to this broad definition, we all practice bribery to some extent.  We may say to our child who is causing a ruckus that if he behaves himself we will buy him a toy.  If a toy is something the child desires, he will control his behavior, at least for while, and the bribe pays off with some temporary peace and quite.

       The problem with bribery is that it can become a tool of oppression.  It can even happen with the example I gave of the misbehaving child.  While the parent may have bribed the child into proper behavior, the child may come to realize that by misbehaving he can get more toys.  So now he begins to use misbehavior as a means of obtaining more toys and in this manner begins to oppress his parents.

       Solomon said a bribe corrupts the heart.  In view of Solomon’s concerns about oppression, it is apparent he is thinking about bribery that leads to others being governed in a harsh and cruel manner.  Bribery becomes an evil when it involves the use of force and threats to facilitate behavior by the governed that only really benefits those doing the governing.  When the welfare of those governing is advanced at the expense of the welfare of those being governed is when we have oppression.  The sustaining of this kind of oppression often involves some form of bribery at all levels of such oppressing government.  Bribery of this nature truly does corrupt the heart.

       Well we got through seven verses of chapter 7.  We will continue this discussion next time around.

PART NINE