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ECCLESIASTES: PART ELEVEN

                                                PRESENTED ON 06-14-14

 

           Today we will continue the series I began last September dealing with the writings of Solomon as recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes. 

        As discussed in my first sermon in this series, the Hebrew title for this book is kohayleth.  When the Hebrew OT was translated into Greek, a work called the Septuagint, the translators used the Greek word Ekklesiastes in their translation of kohayleth.  English translators of the Scriptures then took this Greek word and transliterated it into Ecclesiastes.  Why did the translators of the Septuagint use the Greek word Ekklesiastes to translate the Hebrew kohayleth?  Ekklesiastes is derived from the Greek ekklesia which means assembly. We get our English word Church from this Greek word.  

       The Greek Ekklesiastes means “member of the assembly.”  The Septuagint translators apparently felt this word most closely reflected the meaning of the Hebrew kohayleth as kohayleth appears to mean “to assemble” and can also mean leader, speaker, teacher or preacher of the assembly.  Some rabbinic literature actually treats kohayleth as a title for Solomon.  

       So the title of this book appears to simply be saying that here are words spoken by a speaker to an assembly. These are the words of kohayleth.  Some commentaries simple use the word kohayleth when referring to Ecclesiastes or the writer of the narrative found in this book.

       Ecclesiastes 7:13:  Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?

       The Hebrew word rendered “crooked” is avath which according to the Gesenius Hebrew Lexicon has the basic meaning of “to bend” which is how it is rendered in the NET translation. This word has the broader usage of to curve, bow oneself, turn something upside down, falsify, overthrow, deal perversely, pervert and subvert.  Solomon uses this same word in Ecclesiastes 1:15:

       Ecclesiastes 1:15: What is twisted (avath) cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

       In sermon two of this series I explained that the statement in Ecclesiastes 1:15 has shown itself to be somewhat enigmatic.  Scholars have analyzed the Hebrew words in this passage but have not come up with anything conclusive as to what it was Solomon meant by this statement. 

       Solomon uses this same Hebrew word in 12:3 where he appears to be using it as to its basic meaning of bending.

       Ecclesiastes 12:3: when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop (avath), when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim.

       As I pointed out in sermon two of this series, if we see Solomon’s statement in 1:15 within the context of Solomon looking at the physical creation and seeing all things cycling as he expresses in verses 4 through 7 of chapter one, it would appear he is here saying that what God has willed to be will be and we can’t do anything about it.  He may be saying the same thing in 7:13.  In other words, God is going to do what He is going to do and we humans are not in a position to do anything about it.

       As stated, the Hebrew avath can also mean the turning of something upside down, falsifying something, overthrowing something, dealing perversely and perverting or subverting something.  In Psalm 146:9 the Psalmist writes that the way of the wicked God turns upside down.

       Psalm 146:9: The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down (avath) {KJV}.

       Therefore, it is possible Solomon, like the Psalmist, was using the Hebrew word avath to show that God makes things rough for the wicked.  The NIV renders avath as “frustrates” in this passage.   

       I have probably spent more time with this one verse and one Hebrew word than is necessary.  On the other hand, this shows how difficult it can be at times to ascertain what is being said by a writer who wrote thousands of years ago in a language and cultural setting foreign to us.  The best we can do is try to determine the meaning of what was written by carefully considering the context wherein we find a word or phrase being used.  With Solomon this is difficult because his writings are eclectic in that he doesn’t always present a context.  He will be writing about one thing and suddenly shift to something else.

       In 7:12 he was writing about the value of wisdom and in verse 13 he shifts to writing about not being able to straighten what God has made crooked. In verse 14 to which we now turn, he appears to change the subject again.

       Ecclesiastes 7:14:  When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.

       In some respects Solomon appears to once again be saying that God does what He wants to do and there is nothing we can do about it.  He makes good times and He makes bad times.  Some have used this passage to support the hyper Calvinistic doctrinal perspective that God predestines all that happens.  God has predetermined your good times and your bad times and you can’t do a thing about it.  Therefore there is no point in trying to discover how your future is going to turn out because it will turn out as God has predestined it to turn out.

       Several years ago I gave a serious of sermons on predestination and free will and showed from the Scriptures how the doctrinal perspective that God predetermines every detail of every event that happens is an erroneous perspective.  What God has predetermined is that there will be good times and bad times.   We are not able to look into a crystal ball and determine when, how and where the good times versus the bad times will occur.  We do, however, have the God given ability to exercise choice and often the choices we make will determine the occurrences of good times versus bad times in our lives.  

       Solomon is not here promoting hyper Calvinistic doctrine.  He appears to only be saying that God has determined that there will be both good and bad times and while we should be happy and enjoy the good times we should also realize that bad times will come and when they do we shouldn’t conclude that what is happening to us is somehow outside of God’s will as to how life functions.

       Ecclesiastes 7:15: In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.

       Here we see Solomon reflecting on the fortuitous nature of life.  While God wants us to behave righteously, our righteous behavior doesn’t guarantee us longevity and conversely, wicked behavior doesn’t necessarily lead to a shorter life.  Cause and effect, time and chance happen to us all.  While living righteously will lead to better interpersonal relations and greater avoidance of difficulties, we all must interact with a great many dynamics of life and any number of such dynamics can come together to either create good results, bad results or something in between.  

       Take health for an example.  You can do all the right things nutritionally and life style wise and still get cancer or some other disease.  This is true because there are so many things that we can’t control for.  We can’t control for the toxic substances we inhale from the air we breathe.  We can’t always avoid the toxins in the water we drink.  We can’t always control for the pesticides, herbicides and other toxic agents in the foods we eat.  We can’t always control for the stressors in our lives that negatively affect out health.  We can’t control for genetic predispositions that can make us susceptible to certain diseases.   

       The same can be said of many other areas of life.  You can buy a car and take good care of it and still something can go wrong even to the extent of such wrong taking your life.  Look at the deaths that have been caused by manufacturing defects as witnessed by the various recalls by the automotive industry.   You can be a safe driver and be hit by a drunk driver and be injured or killed.  You were doing what was right which was to drive safely and yet you end up suffering the consequences of someone who was behaving wickedly.  

       Solomon is recognizing that the dynamics of life happen to us all and there is only so much we can do to control such dynamics as we go through life.  This recognition on Solomon’s part would explain why he said the following.

       Ecclesiastes 7:16-18: Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise-- why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool-- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes].

       Solomon appears to be saying that we should not be so obsessed with doing the right and wise thing that we make life a constant grind. On the other hand, we should do all we can to avoid the kind of wickedness that brings pain and sorrow to ourselves and others.  For example the drunk driver I alluded to is acting as a fool in endangering his life and the lives of others. The NET translators render this passage in an interesting manner.

       So do not be excessively righteous or excessively wise; otherwise you might be disappointed. Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool; otherwise you might die before your time. It is best to take hold of one warning without letting go of the other warning;for the one who fears God will follow both warning (NET).

       Trying to be excessively righteous or excessively wise will bring disappointment because we will probably fail to achieve the high standards we set for ourselves and when we fail to do so it can set us on a downward spiral that can have devastating effects on our lives.  Solomon is saying we are to heed both these warnings and if we do it is a reflection of our fearing God. 

       I will skip over verse 19 which speaks of the value of wisdom as we discussed wisdom in some detail last time. Let's now move to verse 20.

       Ecclesiastes 7:20: There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.

       This is best understood as a comparative statement.  Solomon Is not saying there isn’t a righteous man on earth that does what is right.  If he was saying that it would be a contradiction.  The very fact he speaks of a righteous man shows he is acknowledging that a man can be righteous.  He appears to simply be saying that those who behave righteously don't do so all the time and never sin. 

       We certainly know from other Scriptures that we all sin.  We all miss the mark.  We all fail to live completely in harmony with the law and will of God.  That is why the Christ event was necessary.  The Christ event has made it possible for us to be reconciled to God and have a positive relationship with God despite being less than perfect. 

       Ecclesiastes 7:21-22: Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you-- for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.

       The Hebrew word rendered “curse” in this passage has broad meaning which includes to be diminished, despised, be of little account, to make light of, to be cursed and other such meanings.  The intended meaning here does not so much involve the use of what we consider a curse word but to put someone down.  We have all done that from time to time.  Solomon appears to be saying such talk should not be dwelled on or allowed to negatively impact us.

       Solomon continues his discourse in chapter 7 by saying that what he had just expounded upon was his attempt to understand these matters by applying wisdom but he instead found that these matters were quite profound and difficult to discover.

       Ecclesiastes 7: 23-24: All this I tested by wisdom and I said, "I am determined to be wise"-- but this was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound-- who can discover it?

       Solomon continues by explaining how he had turned his mind to investigate these matters and above all come to identify and understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.

       Ecclesiastes 7:25:  So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.

       I have often wondered, as I am sure many of you have wondered, why God puts us though this physical experience that involves so much stupidity of wickedness and madness of folly. Why does God allow the pain and suffering of life?  Why does God allow so much wickedness to occur?  Maybe there is a simple answer.  Maybe God simply wants us to learn the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.  Maybe, in preparation for a different dimension of life after physical death, God simply wants us to experience the stupidity of behavior contrary to His law and His will. 

       I would think that in the life to come, we will be able to look back over the millenniums of earthly time and see how the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly led to all the pain, suffering and heartache of the human experience.  I would think that the human experience of wickedness and folly would be so ingrained in our thinking that we would never again think to behave contrary to the will of God. 

       Like Solomon, we should seek to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.  The more we come to understand the negative consequences of stupid behavior, the better our lives can be in the here and now as we look forward to life after physical death. 

       Solomon now shifts his focus to a particular form of stupid behavior, a behavior that he himself became very familiar with.  Here is what he wrote.  

       Ecclesiastes 7:26-28:  I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare. "Look," says the Teacher, "this is what I have discovered: "Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things-- while I was still searching but not finding-- I found one [upright] man among a thousand, but not one [upright] woman among them all.

       We know from the Scriptural record that Solomon allowed himself to be ensnared by many women.  He allowed himself to be drawn in by them to actually establish temples and places of worship to the false gods that these women aligned themselves with.  The word “upright” does not appear in the Hebrew.  Solomon is simply saying he could find only one man among a thousand and no women among them all.  We can’t be sure from the context what Solomon meant by this statement and I will not speculate as to what it may have been.

       We do know Solomon strayed greatly from God because of his involvement with many foreign women and God was very displeased with his behavior.  We don’t know from the Scriptures whether Solomon came to understand the stupidity of his wicked behavior or whether he went to his grave in the madness of his folly.  He does make a rather interesting statement which concludes chapter seven.

       Ecclesiastes 7:29:  This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes."

       The Hebrew word rendered “upright” in this passage is yashar (yaw-shawr).  It appears several hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is generally rendered as “upright,” “righteous,” or as doing that which is right. 

       We know from the Genesis creation account that God did not create man a sinner.  When God finished His seven day creation He proclaimed it as good. But God allowed Adam and Eve to exercise free will and we know the rest of the story.  Man has been exercising free will ever since and in so doing has truly gone in search of many schemes.  The Hebrew word rendered “schemes” actually means “warlike engines.”  This word is found only one other time in the OT and that is in 2 Chronicles 26:15 where the writer speaks of machines that were made to shoot arrows and stones at the enemy.

       Solomon may have used this word in a figurative sense to show how man goes about developing ways to create pain and suffering for others.  The commentaries don’t really have a good explanation for why Solomon used the word he did in association with man being made upright. 

       We know from the Scriptures that God intends for us to walk uprightly.  To walk upright is to walk righteously.  To walk righteously is to behave according to what is right.  It is God who defines what is right.  God has not left it up to us humans to determine what is right.  God has established standards of conduct for how we are to relate to each other.  For example, God has established heterosexual standards of sexual conduct but man perverts such standards with gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transsexual sexual behaviors.   Unfortunately, many Christians have been sucked into thinking such behavior is OK.  It made me very angery to see on TV this past week so called Christian ministers with Bible in hand making themselves available to marry gay couples who rushed to get married after a Federal judge struck down the Wisconsin ban on gay marriage.   

       Also this past week, leaders of the Jewish, Arab and Christian communities met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to pray for peace.  I can just about see God responding to such prayers in disbelief.  God has given us the way to peace. He has given us the behavioral laws that if implemented would produce peace.  If the whole world would begin to keep just the one commandment against killing our fellow man, we would eliminate much crime, and war over night.  Just think what would happen if the commandment against stealing and coveting would begin to be kept by the world. 

       Ecclesiastes 7:25:  So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.        

       The stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly are all around us.  Let’s make every effort to not participate in such stupidity and madness.  Let us strive to understand what upright behavior is.  Let our daily prayer be that God gives us the wisdom to implement upright behavior in all that we think say and do.  

PART TWELVE