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August 6: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vapor. Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 

Except for maybe one proverb per chapter thorough chapter 6, Solomon has written in the form of personal reflection and general arguments. That’s been his kingly style of communicating wisdom for kings. Now, in chapter 7, he makes an abrupt change in literary style for the first twelve verses. These are all proverbs. They are pithy, but profound. I tend to think that pithy means not only catchy, but easy—sort of like soundbites. But these are tough. They are comparative judgements rather than absolute judgments. We tend to like black and white, do this, don’t do that, but the wisdom books of the bible don’t usually work like that.

At the end of chapter 6 Solomon poses a question: “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vaporous life, which he passes like a shadow?” Chapter 7 seems to begin a long answer that is more provisional than final, although a necessary part of the process to reach the conclusion. Because these proverbs are comparative (rather than absolute), he’s look at what is better than something else. These sayings are not haphazardly lumped together; neither are they meant to be understood without significant effort and contemplation, probably in discussion with others in the community.

Solomon has been honest about our suffering and death due to the curse of God laid upon us because of our sin. We’d rather live a trouble-free life without these things, but the wise know the pursuit of that life is like trying to shepherd wind. Instead, we should learn how to respond to such suffering in a better way. The Hebrew offers us insight into the structure of the passage. Each of the six sayings begin with the Hebrew word for good (tov). There are six, but they link together in duplets to form a threefold outline: 1. Death is a better teacher than birth; 2. Rebuke of the wise is better than empty praise (“the song of fools”); 3. Patient hope for the end of a thing is better than arrogant whining (a “proud” and quickly angered spirit).

The climax or summary statement is a seventh tov saying that wisdom has a relative better advantage. “Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.”

So, back to the question in chapter 6, “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vaporous life, which he passes like a shadow?” Here we’ve found at least a provisional answer: wisdom. Wisdom is good. Wisdom’s benefits are not always realized immediately (like an “inheritance”). Certainly, Jesus, the “wisdom of God,” knew this. He is, after all, the King of kings, thus Ecclesiastes is a book for him. He was patient in suffering for the joy before him, not falling for empty praise along the way, and exploiting death as a better teacher than birth into this present life. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

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