From: Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2012
The Paradox of the Desired
Versus the Needed
In life there is a never-ending tension between what we personally prefer and what is actually most useful for us. It is the perpetual conflict between what we “want” and what we—perhaps grudgingly--recognize as truly “essential.” How we resolve that tension shapes both our character as well as our treatment of others. Because of its importance, it is not surprising that Solomon finds it desirable to devote attention to this area of emotional and intellectual conflict that exists within all of us.
The Flow of the Argument
A. The difficulty of knowing/admitting what is truly “good” for us, i.e., the genuine best ()
B. Superiority of a “good name” (7:1)
C. Superiority of “mourning” and “sorrow” over feasting (7:2-4)
D. Value of a legitimate rebuke/criticism (7:5-7)
E. Emotional self-control better than anger (7:8-10)
F. Relative value of wealth and wisdom (-12)
G. God uses both prosperity and adversity for our good (-14)
A. The Difficulty of Knowing/Admitting What Is
Truly “Good” for Us,
i.e., the Genuine Best ()
This section of the “wants” versus “needs” paradox begins with the twin questions of how we can predict what is best for ourselves and, secondly the difficulty of knowing whether the future will verify or reject the wisdom of the decisions we have made, “For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?” () The implicit answer is that we can predict neither—at least not fully or with complete confidence.
And that which seems the best
decision may turn out to be the totally wrong one. For example, there have been many times and
places in history when it would have been good to be rich and remain in our
homeland rather than emigrate. But not
Even if we accurately can make the best judgment, as the author points out, we have so little time to even guess at the answers. He describes life as that which “passes like a shadow.” A shadow immediately vanishes at the setting sun or even on a stormy day; sometimes even at the passing of a large cloud. Other Old Testament texts (Job 8:9; Psalms 102:11) also utilize this imagery.
The New Testament (James -14) stress this brevity by the image of a vapor that quickly vanishes. It passes before your eyes and yet there is no real tangibility or lastingness about it. It is there and, suddenly, it isn’t. The patriarch Jacob observed that even his life of a 130 years seemed like just a few years to him (Genesis 47:9). It has been five decades since I left junior college. It has been more than three and a half since I married. Yet the time seems to have vanished as quickly as reading a book. Qohelet hits on this basic psychological fact of life.
As an astute ruler, Qohelet would recognize unpredictability as the greatest
danger to his best laid plans. What he knows
(or, at least, is reasonably certain of) he can prepare for. The greatest peril lies in what is beyond his
knowledge—hidden facts, intentions, and motives. To illustrate from military affairs: A neighboring ruler builds up his military
force but he has potential enemies on several sides, including
[Page 85] As ruler he had a variety of overt or covert factions revolving around his court. Whose advice would best further his and his nation’s most important interests?
As monarch he had to be preoccupied with such matters. Yet what Solomon is centrally interested in in the current text is not national affairs, but his own personal welfare. So far as purely “personal” decisions—to the extent that monarchs can have such—things got no better than when he was functioning as chief-of-state. All were based upon limited data and assumptions about his own attitudes and goals and these could just as easily be as “bent” and dualistic as those of his own advisers. Furthermore, “who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?” It is difficult enough to predict the short term consequences of behavior much less long-term ones. If you “win the battle but lose the war,” you have still lost.
These were questions that similarly challenged his entire population. They would not involve such “earth shattering” matters as those decisions made by a monarch, but they could be equally decisive in shaping an individual’s personal future or that of the offspring. And the blunt fact was that the results could be guessed at, estimated, but nothing more. Except in the rarest cases, absolute certainty would be unknowable. (And when “known,” still subject to change by events that haven’t even occurred yet!)
The New Testament takes up both these themes: the sometimes great difficulty in deciding what to do and also the fact that it is impossible for us to accurately determine the outcome of all our decisions. In regard to the first problem, James urged his readers to solve it by seeking wisdom/insight from God (1:5). Wisdom, here, is not knowledge but the ability to adequately and accurately utilize knowledge and, when knowledge is unavailable, to make the most constructive “guess” as to how to proceed. In other words, the gift of insight and clear thinking.
As to the second problem of our inability to assure that our decisions will produce the goals we seek, James argues that we should accept the fact that there are many things above and beyond our control. Everything we do should be with the recognition that it simply may not work out in the way that we design. We should be willing to leave the ultimate outcome in God’s hands (-16).
Qohelet does not present such answers though we have no reason to believe he would have been uncomfortable with them. Instead he points out that though uncertainties are inevitable, that we should dwell on those things that we can be certain of. And to pursue the right priorities whether we are ultimately blessed with fully obtaining what we seek.
B. Superiority of a “Good Name” (7:1)
In illustrating the want/need contrast, the author first presents an implicit difference: What we want is joy and happiness and the “toys of life.” What we need is a well deserved reputation, something that ultimately comes from within because it is based on our attitudes and expression of those attitudes toward others. Proverbs 22:1 developed the idea this way, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold.”
One of the few things that one can be sure of in this life, argues Qohelet, is that an honorable reputation is better than the most expensive things we can purchase in this life. He illustrates this by referring to “precious ointment”—a term that covers both medical preparations and cosmetics of any and all types.
Due to rarity, perceived value, distance transported, and other factors, the cost of some things inevitably exceed others. Yet the most expensive thing we can buy is still not as important as a good reputation. Today we would make the comparison between a good name and, say, owning a Cadillac or Mercedes.
As a king, a ruler does not have to enjoy good reputation and popularity to maintain his position. But most want it, nonetheless. It makes them feel good. On an emotional level it reinforces their sense of propriety, honor, and value. For the rest of the human race, the same psychological factors are at work. Reputation and praise verify our self-image. And since most human beings have a deep fear of looking foolish, this makes it cherished indeed!
The second half of the verse seems a little
odder, “the day of death [is better] than the day of one’s birth.” At birth one is all possibility and nothing
more: A beautiful little bundle held in the arms of
an adoring mother. At that point we may
grow up to be President of the
In contrast, at the time we die we have completed all our accomplishments. We now have something (hopefully!) to be proud of. We have demonstrated our potential. We have proved the validity of our parents’ hopes, not to mention our own. Even when adult life began (at eighteen or whatever age our local society deems it), we had our hopes and dreams but they were nothing more as of yet; with life coming to an end we can take satisfaction and pride at a job well done.
An element of insecurity is inherent in all but the most arrogant rulers: I know what I want to do; can I actually do it? Although a ruler will rarely be longing for death, yet when that moment comes, if he can look back with a contented mind and feel proud of what he has done he can end it all with a sense of well being and accomplishment.
The same is true of the rest of us, though on a more modest scale. It was about forty years ago that I was first ordered to a hospital with a potentially life-threatening diagnosis (suspected heart attack). As I sat there in the doctor’s office I mentally reviewed the things I had wanted to achieve in life and there were three major ones. Two of them I had accomplished. Perhaps for that reason, I felt strangely content for a man with a sword hanging over his head.
That time the diagnosis turned out to be incorrect. Since then I’ve had two major heart attacks and a “silent” one and I’ve walked through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death more times than I prefer. Yet now I have six major goals in life; I’ve accomplished four and a half of them.
[Page 87] I’ve never relished these encounters with death, yet it’s always been of comfort that I’ve been able to do as much as I have. To apply in a more secularized context what the apostle Paul wrote, “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). In the secular arena, it is the crown of dreams accomplished; in the religious one, the crown of eternal redemption made possible through the blood of Jesus.
Although the scriptures do not invoke a “cult of death” in which passing away is the supreme purpose of life, Qohelet and other texts are quite explicit in recognizing that--however painful death may seem--it is not without advantages. Job 3:17-19 speaks of how one is no longer plagued by the wicked and how (verse 16) one has the same state as one unborn. Also in purely temporal terms, Isaiah 57:1-2 speaks of how death enables us to escape the future evil that happens on the earth.
The New Testament
brings a more explicitly “spiritual” aspect to its remarks on the matter. To die means to be with
Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians -23). It
is to enjoy an eternal, heavenly reward (2 Corinthians 5:1). It is to have an abiding “rest” from the
work, difficulties, and turmoils of this life. To die may not be easy because of the friends
and loved ones we leave behind. But it
is also the temporary antechamber that we pass through into a realm of far
greater abundance and joy.
C. Superiority of “Mourning” and “Sorrow”
over Feasting (7:2-4)
We embrace life; we shun death. We glorify all the infinite pleasures the former can bring and we obliterate thought of the day when it all ends. Such things we want, the author argues--and who would deny it? Yet what we actually need is a deep recognition of the importance of death.
After all, one of the few certainties of life is, actually, death and only by fully acknowledging this can one learn to live life to its fullest. Hence the thrust of this section is to embrace the inevitability of death not as something to be feared but as our unavoidable and absolutely certain future.
Recognizing this, we can then grasp that the “mourning” and “sorrow” that accompany the death of loved ones and acquaintances can teach us more than all the feasting and partying of life. In the mourning of death we vividly recognize the importance of life itself; at other times we easily overlook it through the excesses of work, obligations, or carousing.
The “anesthesia” that weakens or deadens our appreciation of the joy of existence will vary according to temperament and financial well-being, but it always [Page 88] is present as a temptation. There is always so much to begrudge as not being within our reach!
Consciously no one believes that he or she will live forever. The same end result occurs, though, when all the emphasis is on the pleasure and joy of “now” and all thought of anything beyond that is consciously blotted out. If one has to be preoccupied with pleasure as versus death the latter is to be preferred, he argues, because we can learn far more from it (7:4). Restraint, self-control, and the thought that inevitably goes through our mind at another’s funeral: we remember that person as a good person or a bad one. Which way will we be remembered? That holds the potential to vastly influence conduct and behavior! And change it for the better.
(7:1 can be integrated with this section if we regard it as discussing the good reputation we have at death rather than during life. Yet since the search for a good reputation leads to attempting to live in a manner that shows deep appreciation for the true importance of life, the two ideas are clearly interlocked whether we are dealing with one or two distinct themes.)
For a monarch, the very lavishness of the lifestyle easily obliterated such thoughts. The prosperity of the western world similarly can do the same for us as well. It isn’t that we should be obsessed with death, but that we should respect it and learn from it. The Psalmist spoke of us being motivated to gain wisdom due to the knowledge that we would die (Psalms 90:12): now is the time for learning. If we don’t take advantage of the opportunity within those narrow time boundaries of birth and death, the chance will soon be gone.
Other Biblical passages (especially in the New Testament) also touch upon what earthly sadness can teach us—not to glorify it into something greater than it is, but to teach us that from even the pains and injuries both insight and self-improvement can be derived. Romans 5:3-4 speaks of how it can help us develop patience in putting up with the difficulties of life. Hebrews 12:10-11 emphasizes that it helps us see the value in moral living (holiness). 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 broadens the horizon and points to its value beyond the current life: if we endure sadness/suffering because of our allegiance to Christ, He will reward us accordingly. Hence it provides us incentives both in regard to the present world as well as preparing for the next one.
D. Value of a Legitimate Rebuke/Criticism (7:5-7)
Continuing his theme of what we need versus what we want, the ruler next turns to criticism. No one likes to hear criticism. Rulers especially get annoyed by it. Even if they have not fallen into the trap of equating “kingship” with “automatically being in the right” (one not fully illogical extension of the “divine right of kings” theology), their position of power inevitably tempts them into thinking that they ought to be in the right. Those in the first category view
[Page 89] challenge as a defiance of their position; those in the second view it as a blow to their pride.
Especially when you, as Solomon, enjoy a vast degree of wisdom yourself. God promised Solomon wisdom, not a monopoly of it, however. One can’t help but wonder when he learned this lesson. Was it by being forced by the power of someone else’s argument into a decision he had not intended to adopt? Or was it by being soothingly misled by one adviser when part of his mind cried out for him to listen to a less eloquent but more perceptive analyst?
There is a way to avoid being put into this position if you are a king or are powerful—you suppress and destroy any challenge to what you decide. Yet, “[s]urely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason, and a bribe debases the heart” (7:7). A generous gift may assure that a critiquer decides to be silent. Or you may throw the critic into jail. Or assure he’s harassed by your tax collector or law enforcement agents.
Flattering as such a course is to an important person’s ego, therein lies intellectual self-destruction as well--for “oppression destroys a wise man’s reason.” If you no longer tolerate critical thought, you ultimately discover you are no longer able to exercise it yourself. Your ability to differentiate between good and bad (both in relative and absolute terms) has been blotted out because you have fudged them together so often and so successfully.
The poor person can become similarly deluded, even though he lacks the methods of oppression available to the government or the well-to-do. Physical violence and verbal intimidation typically work equally well to silence any who urge caution and prudence. And then there is none to save you from that pit which is opening up beneath your feet.
And even if a person
can summon up a bribe, it still “debases the heart” (7:7), both of the person
who gives it and the person who receives it (of the latter, Proverbs ).
In the form of moral criticism, it could remove the needed rebuke; in
the form of judicial decision-making, it could deny others justice (Exodus
23:8; Deuteronomy -20). Bribery either to assure another’s silence or
to obtain one’s way is common in all societies.
E. Emotional Self-control Better than Anger (7:8-10)
When things are said that deeply upset us, we want to be angry. Qohelet turns to that natural inclination next. Yet, he argues, that self-control is what is [Page 90] actually needed rather than the unleashing of our hostilities. Again, the contrast between need and preference.
The desired goal can not easily be obtained, because “its beginning” is so hard and prolonged yet the ultimate “end of a thing” will be far better than that rocky beginning (7:8). Hence to be patient is better than to be puffed up in attitude (7:8), because the latter is going to tempt to you to abort those changes that will guarantee your success.
And that inner pride can cause one to burst out in indignation at contrary advice or the initial slowness of reaching the goal. In life anger is inevitable, but the person who “hasten[s]” to it acts like the “fool” and not the wise person he thinks he is (7:9).
If we become enraged at the slowness of reaching our objective, it is easy to look back at what had been happening and bemoan that those “former days [that were] better than these” (). Indeed, they may have been, but only for the short term. (Not to mention that it ignores those evils that existed at the same time!) Ellen F. Davis suggests that such misplaced nostalgia is a double-edged sword, “essentially a repudiation of the possibility of present joy—and less obviously, a repudiation of present responsibilities.”
The one who allows the difficulties of the moment to make one wish one had never begun a change, is the person who is lacking in perceptivity. Change is inherently painful. “No pain no gain,” applies to far more than just physical exercise.
When Qohelet was pushing through an administrative or policy modification, one can well imagine his frustration at how “nothing is getting done,” at “how this will take forever!” The temptation to throw in the towel, to return to the way things had “always” been even if it was neither efficient or, perhaps, even desirable. It was simply easier.
How did he learn the folly of such a course? Certainly the Proverbist himself had warned of its danger and the need to rein it in rather than permit it unfettered control (Proverbs , 29; Proverbs ; Proverbs ; the New Testament later contained similar admonitions: James 1:19-20; Ephesians 4:26-27). Whether the author learned it from the Proverbist or was the Proverbist himself, what happened in “real life” to lead him to his conclusion?
Did he yield to impatience on some occasion and see the unpleasant result? Or did he learn the lesson from the misadventure of some other ruler? We don’t know, but it does not seem unfair to read most of Ecclesiastes as reflecting personally gained knowledge, knowledge gained by making the mistakes oneself or by personally observing them. Would the anguish be so deep otherwise?
On the personal (rather than “official” government or corporate) level we also fight the desire to let things remain the same even when it works to our ultimate harm. How many times does the person bemoan how difficult things are and how much easier the past was when he is trying to kick drugs? Or alcohol? Or any other addiction? Things were so much simpler when we weren’t trying!
Decades ago I worked for the old Trailways when it was a national bus system. In our terminal, I was group tour manager and one day a chronic drunk came in. Mid-fifties I would think. Clean. Nice looking. Just a bit drunk. Our [Page 91] terminal manager once told me, “I don’t think I’ve seen him sober since the war ended,” twenty years before.
A young man, perhaps twenty, worked in our luggage and freight loading operation. I happened to be talking to the older man in my office one day and suggested he should get professional help. The younger man happened to wander in and listened a little and then turned to the older fellow, “I’ve licked drugs. If I could stop that, you can get off the alcohol. I’ve got the telephone number for you to call.”
The older man hemmed and hawed and hemmed and hawed and finally left to “think about it.” His future literally twisted from one direction to another on the head of an intellectual needle during that long conversation—would he be willing to risk the discomfort and pain of change? That day he came as close as a man can come to having us lift that phone and make that call without actually agreeing to it. Many a person sells out his future that way and because he does there will be no future—only the past recycled time and time again until the body finally lies down and dies.
F. Relative Value of Wealth and Wisdom (-12)
Continuing his theme of things we want, the author next turns to wealth and prosperity. What we need for it to be of maximum use to us, though, is the wisdom to use it effectively and well. Without it, the value of the wealth actually diminishes if not vanishes. Indeed it has a superiority even to money, it provides a kind of “life” that money can not ().
The interlocking of wisdom and money comes in two forms. Temporally in regard to retaining it. The simple fact is that the old adage “the fool and his money are soon parted” is just as applicable to the wealthy as to the poor. The kind of conman will differ as will the dress, demeanor, and even educational background. But without a considerable ability to penetrate beneath superficial appearances, the doctor can be robbed of his hundred thousand dollars just as easily as the cleaning man of his ten dollars.
Every few years you will read in the newspaper of some multi-million dollar racket that has taken big name stars and professionals for extravagant amounts of money. What they do, they do well; but they lacked the insight, the “wisdom” into handling their money that they needed to hang on to it.
Wisdom and money are also interlocked in determining the best means to utilize our affluence. There are honest and dishonest ways of making money. And there are ways that balance perilously on the borderline. Sometimes the line between right and wrong becomes blurry. That, in itself, should warn us that we are too close to the line already. It’s kind of like driving down the road in a sandstorm: when you can no longer see what’s in front of you, it’s time to pull over and stop.
[Page 92] Even in charity giving there is the need for wisdom. More than a few charities who contact you (especially by telephone) are actually independent companies who take a majority of the money—sometimes far, far more than that—for their “expenses.” You think you are giving fifty dollars to a well intentioned charity when actually they get only twenty dollars. Or ten. Or even five. It is a sad commentary on human greed when even helping the needy becomes the veneer for a profit making business and you are not even given the slightest indication that you are primarily enriching the business and not the charity.
Most people learn the lesson of the need for the wise use of one’s financial resources by some personal mistake they’ve made in giving or investing and then reading the truth later in some newspaper. Probably Solomon had heard the moaning of some rich counselor or two of his who had misinvested their money. Perhaps even Solomon himself had. But “once burned, twice shy” and, having recognized his problem, that was the beginning of self-protection.
H. God Uses Both Prosperity and Adversity
for Our Good (-14)
Finally, we want prosperity. Who in their right mind would do otherwise? Yet adversity, the king argues, may actually work more good for us that we wish to admit. The tension between desire and need one final time.
He begins with a
generalization based upon God’s omnipotence, “Consider the work of God; for who
can make straight what He has made crooked?” () One can’t successfully reverse God’s will.
One can’t subvert it. One can’t
alter it. One can attempt
to. Or one might temporarily prevent it
from occurring. (Both illustrated by the
Exodus account of Pharaoh’s opposition to
From this Qohelet deduces that if God has sent your way a given set of human conditions, then you must learn to live with it rather than engage in a futile effort to alter what is beyond your power. If it be prosperity that comes your way, “be joyful” but if it be “adversity” instead, remember that God has “appointed” the existence of that fate as well (7:14). Since God “sends” both the prosperity and the adversity it follows that both must have a potential value to us.
He conspicuously does not say that one must enjoy adversity or be joyful in it, just to recognize that God’s governing hand lies behind it. Either He will guide you out of it or give you the strength to survive it. Wallowing in bitterness does no good.
In effect he argues that we should “accept life as it come and make the most of it without trying to fit everything into the confines of retribution.” It certainly isn’t retribution if we haven’t done anything to deserve it!
[Page 93] Our text edges up to a concept developed in the New Testament—that adversity can serve a positive value even when we are guiltless. If God sends it to correct us or to punish us he is merely treating us in a fashion parallel with an earthly parent chastening us for our transgressions (Hebrews 12:4-10). It causes us to reconsider our lifestyle and become “partakers of His holiness” (). Furthermore, though in the short-term it is doubtless “painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” ().
The same learning can come from the natural cycle of good and evil that comes our way by virtue of human existence—conditions that exist for everyone in a given time and place. Things such as economic well being/depression, general physical wellness/widespread contagious disease, peace/war. Affecting everyone, yet they can teach us our needed self-control, patience, and reliance on the Almighty. If we permit them to.
The author sees in the fact that difficult times can come our way a reminder that all of us labor under the burden of the inability to find out that which “will come after him” (7:14). In the short term, that would cover whether the prosperous will face adversity themselves or whether those enduring hardship will triumph.
It is not that he is counseling giving in to an unalterable fate for he implies there is no way to know what our future “fate” will be. Instead his message carries with it the idea of acceptance of that which we have no control over. Jesus touched on this theme when he spoke of how “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew ) and how we should not allow our earthly conditions to torment us (-33).
It is hard for us to imagine Solomon enduring hard times. Economically, at least. Though even under his reign, there that must have been at least some occasions when the exchequer was far from overflowing. We know that he sent out joint fleets to trade and make money. The fact that they continued argues that most reaped a worthy profit. But all of them?
Furthermore, were there times when the local taxes simply did not yield as much as desired and caused the temporary postponement of his plans? Quite likely if one thinks about it. Agriculture never remains at a permanent level of high yield and good prices.
Certainly he would have observed the fickle hand of prosperity and loss--both economic and in the form of disease, family disaster, and other tragedies--among those he knew and respected. Servants. Councilors. Important city and village leaders. He surely had seen and, at least occasionally, meditated upon those painful circumstances. And these were his conclusions.
We today are no more happy with his implicit message of “tranquil” endurance than they were. But what other choice is there except hatred or the gutting of our own emotional stability? Neither of which alters the situation for the better. Indeed, sometimes they can alter the situation dangerously for the worse.