Ecclesiastes 7:1-20

Ecclesiastes 7:1-20

The Test of Adversity Is Easier than the Test of Prosperity

A well-known Hollywood actress once said, “I know what it’s like to be poor.  And I know what it’s like to be rich.  And let me tell you, rich is better.”[i]  But Solomon would disagree.  I don’t know whether he was ever poor, but he certainly was rich, and his personal testimony in chapter 5 and 6 of Ecclesiastes is that wealth is not all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, prosperity in general does not live up to its billing.

That was impressed upon me in an indelible way by my mother, now 93, a very godly woman who endured a lot of hardship as a young mother.  I was her third child in three years as my father was a student in seminary and we were living in public housing in Dallas.  When I was 2 my dad graduated and the family moved to St. Louis, where my father taught in a little Bible institute in the Central West End.  All five of us lived in a one-room tenement near downtown, and I mean one room–no closet, no kitchen, not even a bathroom (there was a public bathroom down the hall that served six apartments).  My dad was paid $50 a month for teaching, but the college kept it all because our family ate all our meals in the dining hall.  Later, when my little sister was born, the six of us moved into a one-bedroom flat a few doors away.  The neighborhood was so bad that we couldn’t go out at night, nor even during the daytime unless there were at least two adults.  

To make ends meet my dad accepted a weekend pastorate at a little church in Maryland Heights, which was a 45-minute ride on the Delmar streetcar.  My mom faithfully got the four children ready every Sunday and kept us there all day until the evening service was over.  I’ll spare you other details of our poverty, but you get the picture.  

Fast forward a decade.  My father, who had served the college faithfully in many capacities, and was now the President.  A very wealthy friend died, leaving his entire estate to the college and specifying that the President and his family should live in his home.  He lived on a private street in Clayton in a house worth at least $500,000 today.  While the home itself did not belong to us, we were allowed to live in it rent-free, and all the contents were given to us–the beautiful furniture, the china in the hutch, the silver and the crystal, a TV (our first), even the car in the garage.  We had gone from the armpit of St. Louis to the richest area of St. Louis County.  We had gone from having virtually nothing to enjoying beautiful things we had only dreamed about.  I went from one of the worst schools in the city to one of the finest high schools in the nation, Clayton High School.

One day, after we had lived on Arundel Place for about a year, I remember my mother commenting, “The test of adversity is easier than the test of prosperity.”  What she meant is that she found it is easier to maintain an attitude of dependence upon God, to continue her deep prayer life, to keep her priorities straight, and to keep family relationships strong when facing adversity than when enjoying prosperity.  I believe she was right, and I believe many Christians could testify to the same thing.  I thank God for the poverty of my early years.  I believe my sons have missed some major character-building advantages I had. 

I’m not a masochist, of course, and I would never choose adversity–for myself or for anyone I love.  I enjoy prosperity as much as the next person, whether financial or medical or any other kind.  But it is important for us to realize that prosperity is not an automatic sign of God’s favor, nor is adversity necessarily a sign of His disfavor.  Furthermore, neither prosperity nor adversity are outside God’s control.  These are some of the truths shared in our Scripture text today.

On first reading, Ecclesiastes 7 contains some of the most paradoxical instruction found anywhere in Scripture.  Thus it behooves us to examine it carefully. 

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 vanity

Skip down to verse 13

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. 

Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.    

The key word in this whole chapter is wisdom, and Solomon employs a number of proverbs to indicate that wisdom is the ultimate path of prosperity.  But as we have discovered previously, the author of Ecclesiastes is not a linear, analytical thinker.  At times it’s almost impossible to outline his thoughts.   So what we have been doing, and will continue to do, is to look for certain themes and pursue them, without attempting to explain every verse. 

I believe the key verse of this passage is verse 14: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”  Here’s my sermon in a sentence: Since God has sovereignly set the times of prosperity and the times of adversity, and since we do not know what the future holds, the best course of action is to be joyful in times of prosperity and find the relative good in times of adversity.  

Solomon opens the chapter by sharing what he discerns as some good benefit in events that we generally think of as entirely bad: death, sorrow, rebuke, seasons of adversity.  This shouldn’t shock us, for Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount told us, “Blessed are those who mourn, who are persecuted, who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, and who are hated.”  What both Solomon and Jesus are asking us to do is to realize that …

Adversity has its advantages.  (1-6)

Solomon communicates this theme by means of a series of “better than” statements.

         1.  The day of death is better than the day of birth. (1)  Now I know that’s not where Solomon begins verse 1.  He starts out by saying that “A good name is better than precious ointment.”  What does perfume have to do with the date of death or birth?  Probably only the fact that the first part of the verse is more obviously true than the second, so Solomon uses it to make the second half more acceptable.  It’s as though he says, “Just as a good name is better than fine perfume, so also the day of death is better than the day of birth.”

In what sense is it true that the day of one’s death is better than his birthday?  On the day you were born there was great hope on the part of your parents, but only hope–hope that you would be healthy, live long, walk with God, have a family, develop friendships, avoid unusual suffering, have a successful career, and accomplish something significant.  But none of those things is guaranteed. 

On the other hand, when you die you will have completed the novel that is your life, you will have established the relationships that survive, you will have ministered, hopefully, to some who will one day meet you in eternity and thank you for the cup of cold water you provided or for the word of encouragement you spoke.  Even if you have suffered much adversity during your life, and even if you have failed to live up to your own expectations, what you leave behind is probably better than the mere hope your parents had the day you were born.

For the believer, of course, the day of death is the best day of all.  Thomas Boston put it this way:“In the day of his birth he was born to die, but in the day of his death he dies to live.”[ii]  The day we die we enter a better world, with higher perfection, greater purity, deeper rest, better company and more meaningful employment than the world we entered on the day we were born.  

         2.  Mourning is better than feasting.  (2) “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.”  I have been known to say that I prefer funerals to weddings.   My wife may attribute that to a morbid streak in my personality, but actually a Christian funeral has certain advantages that a wedding rarely has.  Sober reflection, personal evaluation, and practical application of the Scriptures are all far more likely to occur at a funeral simply because there are fewer distractions.  

Furthermore, we seem to have allowed worldly thinking and worldly standards to creep into our funerals to a somewhat lesser extent than into our weddings.  I get increasingly disturbed at the size, expense, and ostentatiousness of many weddings, even Christian ones.  They set a tone of materialism from the first day of marriage from which too many couples never recover.                            

Solomon agrees that there is something about a good funeral that gets people to thinking seriously about life.  He says, “for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.”  Unfortunately, that isn’t automatic, for in many ways our culture is in denial about death.  We try so hard to make it pretty.  We order all kinds of beautiful flowers, embalm the bodies, put them in beautiful, ornate caskets, use all kinds of euphemisms to cover the grim reality.  People file by and say, “Doesn’t she look so nice and peaceful?”  No, she’s dead.  She’s not even there.  I think we should resist the tendency to make death less than it is–the last great enemy. 

In the 90th Psalm Moses talks a lot about death–how quickly it comes, how much toil, trouble and suffering precedes it, and then he concludes with this prayer: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  Obviously we can’t know how many days we have, but if we take the average of “70, or even by reason of strength, 80,” we can profit from marking each day off and recognizing that we will never have that one to live again.  

         3.  Sorrow is better than laughter. (3-4) “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.”  Here, as often in the Proverbs written by Solomon, the author stretches a point to make a point.  Certainly sorrow is not always better than laughter, nor is a sad face always good for the heart.  Solomon himself makes the opposite observation in Prov. 15:13: “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” 

So which is it?  Probably both.  Laughter is best when it is generated by joy and delight in life.  But sorrow is better if the laughter is that of a fool.  All you have to do is listen to modern comedy for a few minutes to realize how mindless, frivolous, even degrading most of it has become.  Sorrow, on the other hand, causes us to think about life, its meaning, and our priorities.  It was Paul who noted that he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  There is no necessary contradiction between the two.  

The last kind of adversity I’m going to point out is rebuke. 

         4.  The rebuke of the wise man is better than the song of fools.  (5-6) The rebuke of the wise person is constructive criticism.  The song of fools is probably a reference to either flattery or to the empty songs that are sung to escape the problems of life.  Now let’s be honest here.  There’s no one who enjoys criticism, even constructive criticism.  Yet we all need it, and when a wise person is willing to confront us with our weaknesses and suggest different priorities we simply must listen.  

One of the saddest things I have seen in ministry is the volunteer or the staff member who cannot receive criticism.  Usually the reason is insecurity.  When a person has poor self-esteem, he thinks so poorly of himself that even the slightest hint of criticism blows him out of the water.  What he fails to see is that the other person is usually trying to help him be successful.  The flattery of fools, on the other hand, is “like the crackling of thorns under a pot.”  Thorns create a sudden flame and a fine display of sparks, accompanied by plenty of noise, but they don’t create much heat, and the fire is short-lived.  So is the praise of fools.  How much better to accept, and even welcome, the rebuke of the wise.  

To summarize these first six verses, Solomon is telling us that the present grief and pain we endure due to death, mourning, sorrow, or rebuke may prove to be more beneficial in the long run than all the festivity, mirth, and jovial laughter that characterizes fools.  Adversity has its advantages.  In fact, adversity more often than prosperity is the scalpel the Divine Surgeon uses to bring his children to the point of understanding where their real happiness lies.  

Following a series of more-or-less disconnected proverbs in verses 7-12, Solomon returns in verse 13 to the subject of adversity and prosperity, as he states that neither is outside God’s control.

Neither prosperity nor adversity are outside God’s control.  (13-14)

This is very important for us to grasp because we tend to forget God when we’re prosperous and to think He’s forgotten us when we are not.  Look again at verses 13 & 14: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?  In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” 

The foundational point Solomon is making is that . . .

         1.  God is in control. (13) When the Preacher talks about something “crooked,” he is not speaking of something out of line morally.  Rather he’s speaking of the adverse things that come into our lives which we can’t explain and usually feel we don’t deserve.  Solomon suggests that it is generally futile to try to figure such things out.  We can nearly drive ourselves nuts by trying to discern why certain things have happened and why others haven’t.  We don’t know what the future holds, and we certainly cannot control it.  So what should we do about it? 

         2.  When times are good, be joyful.  (14) “In the day of prosperity be joyful.”  Have you noticed how common this theme of enjoyment is in the book of Ecclesiastes?  Life is futile and often meaningless, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth living.  In fact, for the very reason that there are so many loose threads on the bottom side of the rug, we need to concentrate on enjoying life rather than figuring it out.

But do people need to be told to be joyful in the day of prosperity?  Isn’t that automatic?  No, as a matter of fact, it isn’t.  There are many people who just can’t seem to enjoy life no matter how goodGod has been to them.  They worry that the good times won’t last.  They fret over what might happen, even though it hasn’t yet.  Though they have enough money to live until well over 90, they worry that they might live to be 100 and will run out of resources.  Solomon says that’s a sad way to live.  Enjoy what you have.  Don’t waste your life by trying to accumulate more.  Don’t wait for retirement to enjoy life.  Enjoy it now.  

One of the ironic things in life is the fact that when our children are young and most enjoyable, we fathers tend to be busier than ever, establishing ourselves in business and preparing for our children’s future.  Unfortunately, too often, by the time we have their college education secured they are gone and there’s little opportunity to enjoy them.  I would say to young fathers and mothers, make sacrifices in your lifestyle now so that you can get the most joy out of your children.  When times are good, be joyful. 

         3.  When times are bad, refer back to #1.  He who made the good times has also allowed the bad.  Neither situation is outside His sovereign control.  And try as we might, we cannot prepare for all contingencies.  As some of you know, a group of about 40 from our church are planning to go to Israel in late October.  When we planned this trip last fall, there was peace and order in the Middle East (at least as much as there ever is).  But since that time the Arab spring has erupted, Hamas has made peace with the Palestinian Authority, and the Israelis have had to fight off invasions from the Golan Heights.  A few people have asked nervously (and these are mostly people who didn’t sign up in the first place), “Is the trip still on?  Are you really going to go into that dangerous part of the world?  What will you do if war breaks out?”  

I want to say to the professional worriers in my life:  Relax a little!  Of course, I don’t know what might happen between now and then; it’s possible war might break out and the airlines will cancel our flights.  But there comes a point, friends, when one has to just trust God.  You’ve heard of the epitaph on the tombstone of the hypochondriac, “I told you I was sick.”  Yes, everyone has to die sometime, but isn’t it better to enjoy life a little before you go!?!  

Now I don’t believe in foolishness.  I wouldn’t take a tour group to Afghanistan or Somalia.  But it’s one thing to make wise and prudent plans; it’s another to play God.  We often make a mistake so well expressed by C. S. Lewis:  

We want  . . . not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’ . . . I would very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines.  But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.[iii]

Friends, that is perhaps the most important thing for us to grasp from our time in this text.  When we’re going through adversity, it’s not necessarily because we’ve screwed up (though that is possible), and it’s certainly not proof that God doesn’t love us.  It may actually be proof of the opposite.  This may be difficult for some of us to get our arms around, but I want to suggest to you that when God hurts us, it’s because he loves us.  Like many truths concerning God there is a parallel, albeit an inadequate one, in human relationships.  I well remember as a child hearing my father say, with all sincerity, as he was dispensing some painful discipline, “I’m only doing this because I love you.”  I guess I should have been pleased that he loved me more than all my siblings, but I actually had serious doubts about his integrity.  However, once I survived adolescence I understood, and I slowly began to see it his way.  He really did hurt me because he loved me. 

There is a third key point Solomon wants to communicate here in chapter 7.  Not only is it true that adversity has its advantages, and that neither prosperity nor adversity are outside God’s control; it is also true that …

Adversity is not necessarily undeserved.  (15-29)

Usually our struggle over adversity has an unwarranted assumption attached to it, namely, “I don’t deserve this.  I’m basically a good, hard-working, upstanding citizen.  Furthermore, I’m a Christian, and as a child of God I deserve better.” Solomon wonders out loud whether that’s really true.  First, however, in verse 15 he openly admits the obvious.

         1.  Inequities are often apparent. (15)  “In my vain life I have seen everything.  There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.”  We see this often in Scripture– a righteous Naboth perishing while a wicked Jezebel survives for 20 more years.  We see it in our lives as well.  I think of Dawson Trotman, great Christian evangelist and discipler, founder of the Navigator’s paradise, Glyn Erie, who drowned in the prime of life while trying to save a young person’s life.  At the same time a reprobate atheist like Bertrand Russell lived to be 96.  What’s up with that?

Such inequities are apparent all around us, and when we see them we are tempted to react in one of two ways. 

         2.  The typical extreme reactions to inequity are self-defeating.  Listen to verses 16-18, and listen carefully, for these three verses are among the most often misinterpreted verses in the Bible:“Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.  Why should you destroy yourself?  Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool.  Why should you die before your time?  It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.”  Now that is a good literal translation, but frankly, the NIV presents the sense of that last phrase better: “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”

Years ago in St. Louis I was talking about this passage with a friend of mine and he said, “Solomon sounds to me like an Episcopalian.  Don’t be too good but don’t be too bad.”  I wouldn’t mention that except he was an Episcopalian priest.  Frankly, there are a lot of professing Christians who pursue a lifestyle that seems to exhibit just such a philosophy.  But I don’t believe that’s the Preacher’s point at all.  

What I believe Solomon is telling us is that it is a mistake to follow a path of either licentiousness or legalism.  The licentious person deals with the futility of life by blowing off all restraints.  “If godliness doesn’t earn me happiness and prosperity, then why bother being good?  I’ll just live for myself and take my chances.  Life’s just a big roulette wheel anyway.”   But the legalistic, performance-oriented person takes the opposite approach–he just tries harder.  If godliness hasn’t earned happiness and prosperity yet, he’s going to try even harder.  Surely if he can please God more or drum up more faith, then he will experience more prosperity.  But Solomon says both of these approaches are mistaken.

Chances are the licentious person will die before his time because his sin will shorten his time.  The legalistic person, on the other hand, ends up destroying himself.  How?  Well, the person who is super-pious and fastidious about everything, a real good two-shoes, loses all enjoyment in life, and furthermore, he makes everyone around him miserable.  I don’t think there’s anyone harder to live with than an overly righteous, especially self-righteous person.  You’ve known people like that, haven’t you?  I remember a man early in my ministry who wore his shorts way too tight.  I mean, this guy could spot a flaw in your life a mile away.  He generally overlooked the ones in his own life, but he could sure see yours!  He not only took the joy out of life for those around him; he was himself a miserable human being.  Not surprisingly, he has moved from one church to another over the years.  

If these two extreme reactions are mistaken, what is the proper approach?  He tells us at the end of verse 18 that it is to fear the Lord.

         3.  The proper reaction to inequity is to fear the Lord.  When we stand in awe of God and His sovereignty, we will not allow the apparent inequities in life to drive us into practical atheism or pious legalism.  We will recognize that He is God and whatever comes from His hand is good and just, whether it looks that way to us or not.  Instead of being either licentious or legalistic, Solomon hints that we need to live in a godly manner without becoming a pious stick in the mud.  We need to enjoy life in this sinful world without becoming corrupted by the evil all around us, or as the NT puts it, we need to be in the world but not of it.

         4.  Recognize where the real problem lies–in our thorough sinfulness.  Verse 20: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”  Whenever we feel put upon by God and think we are being treated unfairly, it is good to come to this verse or its NT counterpart, Romans 3:23 (“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”), and bow down before God in humility, acknowledging that we actually deserve nothing good from Him, and it’s only because we are doing comparison shopping from the bottom side of the rug that we have any sense of inequity anyway.  I recently came across an anonymous quote that reveals the truth about sinful human nature in a striking manner:  

         “Several years ago my family and I visited Auschwitz.  I found the visit even more disturbing than expected.  A priest friend later asked me what I had thought, and I said I was upset by the scope of the inhumanity.  His response, without a moment’s hesitation, was to say, “That was not inhumanity.  That was the most human place you will ever visit.”  

We are all sinners saved by grace and loved by God.  That’s the only hope any of us have, you know.  There’s not a one of us that will ever achieve perfection in this life.  But we are loved by almighty God anyway.  He loved us enough to send His one and only Son to the Cross to die for us.  And when we experience that love and bask in it, we can grow in holiness and godliness.    

Conclusion:  Ten days ago Jan and I were returning from a brief trip to see our grandkids in Bentonville and we drove through Joplin, MO.  I’ve seen tornadoes before.  I went to Greensburg a few days after that tornado.  I remember Topeka and Andover.  But friends, those were minor league disasters compared to Joplin.  The destruction is mindboggling.  There is a tendency to respond to something like that by thinking, “What did those people do to deserve such utter obliteration?”  But the better question is, “Why have we been spared?  How is it that no member of my family has cancer?  How come have sufficient resources to buy whatever I need and much of what I want?  How do merit being born in a free country?”   

We too readily judge a book by its cover.  Though we live but a few short years and all of those are spent on the bottom side of the rug, we often look at the people or situations around us and presume that God has been unfair in the way he has treated us.  Friends, God’s books on Prosperity and Adversity read very differently on the inside than on the outside.  They read very differently at the end than they do at the beginning.  

Trust Him and obey Him.  Walk close to Him, for when He troubles you it is because He loves you.  The test of adversity really is easier than the test of prosperity, and when it is passed, it produces great character and beautiful fruit. 

[i] Mae West said it, but there is considerable debate about where the quotation originated.  

[ii] Quoted in Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, 151.  

[iii] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 40.