How do you respond to the difficult perplexities of life? What do I mean by the difficult perplexities of life? Well, Ecclesiastes has been full of them: In the previous chapters Solomon has taken us on a tour of our dissatisfaction with our possessions and our inability to derive lasting happiness from the things that we own, the seemingly absurd proposition that days of adversity and death are as much from God’s hands as days of merriment, the reality of our human condition so that none of us are absolutely righteous or wise, and the frustration of having to submit to authorities over us with whom we disagree. However, Perhaps the most bewildering and discouraging reality we face in life is addressed in 8:14:
Eccl. 8:14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
This is the perplexing reality that nearly drove Asaph to abandoned his faith in Psalm 73. Psalm 73 is a shocking psalm of sincere doubt as Asaph recounts how he nearly walked away from God because he saw the wicked enjoying carefree lives while he himself had received nothing but pain and rebuked as he tried to serve God.
Psalm 73:2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Psa. 73:4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
Now, ultimately, Asaph regained his footing and gained a new perspective on the goodness of God in this difficult perplexity of life. How about you? How do you respond when you are faced with injustice or adversity or silence from God? or any of the other miriad of ways that God’s ways confuse us, disappoint us, perplex us?
In chapter 8:15-9:10, Solomon gives his answer. This is the heart of the positive instruction in the book. This is the absolute climax of Solomon’s argument, his thesis of how we are to respond to the hebel of life. He’s alluded to this answer a number of times already in the book, but here he unpacks it for us. And you might be surprised by his answer. His answer is not to give up, or to walk out, or to suffer anxiety, or to try to change the difficult perplexities of life. No. Here is his answer:
15 And I [therefore] commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
I commend joy. Three words. I commend joy. How are we to respond to the difficult perplexities of life? Solomon carefully weighs all the options and comes out with this: I commend joy. There is nothing better than this: be joyful. Now Solomon is going to explain his commendation to us, so that we can be assured that he’s not crazy. There are reason’s for this commendation:
The Reason’s For the Response of Joy
The Difficult Perplexities of Life Cannot Be Solved
Eccl. 8:16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep,17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
Solomon’s first reason to commend joy as the response to the difficult perplexities of life is that you are not going to figure out any way to fix life’s perplexities. Solomon says, I tried that, it kept me up day and night, I examined every angle, and I could not figure out the perplexities of life, and if anyone claims to have, they are lying to you.
In other words, Solomon is arguing that these deep perplexities of life are not problems to be fixed but realities to be responded to by us. A key principle of life is to spend your time and energy fix problems, and very little trying to change the nature of reality, and therefore it is important to know the difference. You cannot fix reality. You can only adjust yourself to it. Trying to fix reality is only going to frustrate you.On the other hand, there is an existential relief that comes when we realize that we are not going to figure all the mysteries of life out.
This book of Ecclesiastes is basically an extended argument for the constrained vision.
God Holds Everyone and Everything in His Hands
9:1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.
The one who fears God and faces the perplexing reality understands that while we cannot figure out all of God’s ways, we can trust all that he does: “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God.” No one escapes his sovereign care and his judicial oversight. He sees us all for who we are and he searches every heart.
We Are To Live While We Are Alive
3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun
Solomon’s third point seems to be that now is not the time to have everything figured out, or to gain an explanation of all of God’s plans, but that now is the time for living. Soon, we’re all going to die, the righteous and the wicked alike. Solomon is not in these verses denying the idea of an afterlife, by saying that the dead know nothing and they have no reward, for they are forgotten. Solomon has made it clear that he believes that there is a reality that awaits us after death, in fact, it is clear that he believes that we will all stand before God in judgement after our lives are over: Eccl. 3:17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.)
What Solomon is saying is that “under the sun” - remember we defined this as the temporal length of this life on earth, so that during this life we have a share in what is done - and not in the next. In other words, now is the time for living and experiencing life, rather than the time for understanding all that is happening and figuring out the mysteries of reality.
And so we are given this life by God to live while we are alive in some response to the perplexing mysteries of life. Paralysis is not going to be an appropriate response. Staying in your bed with the covers over your head so that you can escape life is not the way. And you’re never going to figure it all out, and God’s got it all in your hand, and you’ve got to live life now, so why not try joy? I commend joy.
The Particular Details of the Response: This brings us back to Solomon’s recommendation of joy, and in verses 7-10, he unpacks this joy for us a bit more.
1. The Joy of a Clean Conscience
Eccl. 9:7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
The second half of this verse is important for understanding the first. God has already approved what you do (or he has already accepted your works). Solomon is not suggesting that God is ambivalent about how we live or that whatever we do will be ok in God’s eyes. Not at all.
Remember, throughout this section of Ecclesiastes, Solomon has repeatedly pointed to the fact that the one who fears God will overcome the perplexing difficulties of life:
Eccles. 7:18 “The one who fears God will come out from both of them”
Eccles. 8:12 “It will be well with those who fear God”
Eccles. 8:13 “It will not be well with the wicked … [who] does not fear before God”
The one who fears God acknowledges God and observes his commands. God has already approved what that one does, because he is doing what the Lord has commanded. This is the particular joy of a clean conscience to the one who fears God. He can eat because he eats to the glory of the Lord. She can drink he wine with a merry heart, for she knows how to exercise self control and will not dishonour the Lord in drunkenness. It is such a freeing thing to have a clean conscience. To know that you don’t have any secrets that if they were exposed they would tear you down, embarrass or destroy you. This is to be the reality of all who follow Jesus Christ. I have no secret sins, I have no skeletons that will come out of the closet to haunt me. This is what it means to walk in the light as he is in the light. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect, but that we are being perfected by his grace. That when we do sin, we draw near to God and expose our darkness yet again to his light, and we confess our sins and he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. We can walk in the light and with a cleansed conscience because, John goes on to say in his letter, Jesus Christ stands as both our defence attorney and as our propitiating sacrifice - the payment for sin turning away God’s wrath. Walking in the light with a cleansed heart, and following after Jesus Christ’s perfect way of living, I can live with a completely clean conscience and therefore eat and drink and live in the joy of salvation.
2. The Joy of a Confident Presentation
Eccl. 9:8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
The second aspect to this joyful life Solomon commends is to live our lives with a confident presentation. The idea behind the white garments and the oil on the head, is basically the opposite of for example, how one might mourn. King David, for example, while he was awaiting word as to whether his son would die, fasted and prayed and wept and lay on the ground day and night, but when he had heard that his son had died, he got up and washed himself and anointed himself and changed his clothes - exactly what Solomon is counselling here. The idea is that we are to present ourselves ready to walk into the future and face whatever adversity and troubles may come, with shoulders back ready to live life.
The one who fears God knows that he has lost to someone greater and more powerful than himself. He has surrendered to the most powerful being in the universe. However, that does not make that many a loser or defeated - instead, the secret is that when you lose to God, when you surrender to God, he exalts you to himself and seats you in the heavenly places in Christ, and thus nothing in all creation can bring a charge against you. If God is for you, then who can be against you!
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Christian if you are truly redeemed, if there is truly therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, if we are truly raised with Christ to be seated with him in the heavenly realms, if he truly has given us everything pertaining to life and godliness, if truly his grace is sufficient for us and his power is truly made perfect in our weaknesses; if we truly have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that this power in us is not from us, but from God, if we truly possess and and are posed b the spirit of the living God alive in us, doesn’t that pulse through your body and make your face shine and make you want to put on white garments and wash your face and greet the world - the difficult, perplexing world, with a crooked - you’re-not-going-to-get-to me-today smile? Let me say it again - if you are in Christ, what can the world do to you. Keep you head up and face today with his strength and his power and his favour resting upon you.
3. The Joy of Close Relationships
Eccl. 9:9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
The third aspect to this joyful life relates to the simple truth that most of the joy in life comes through the celebration of the relationships closest to you. The people whom God has placed in your life as gifts. Joy is not an individual pursuit - it comes together with other people. He’s saying find joy through enjoying the people around you, the people you care about. He specifically mentions a wife, but friends, children, parents, brothers and sisters, these are all gifts to us and people with whom we can enjoy life with together. Take every moment and love them, rejoice with them, laugh with them, dance with them, affirm them, appreciate them, encourage them, know them. Our souses, friends, and children are our portion. We’ve got some newly married couples in here. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying time spent together. New parents, don’t feel guilty for taking time and enjoying your kids - they grow up fast. Call an old friend this week - call them, don’t text. Take someone out this week. Love them. Face to face.
The Beautiful Things We miss by Matthew West
I don't wanna miss it
I don't wanna look back someday and find
Everything that really mattered
Was right in front of me this whole time
Open up my eyes, Lord
Keep me in the moment just like this
Before the beautiful things we love
Become the beautiful things we miss
We don't get to rewind
There's no such thing as next time
Help me remember, help me remember, we don't get this back
They were right when they said don't blink
It all goes faster than you think
Lord, help me remember, help me remember
The beautiful things we miss
4. The Joy of Contented Work
10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” - how is work a conduit of joy? Especially because from Genesis 3 an particularly in this book of Ecclesiastes we understand that because of the fall of man and the curse associated with work, our work will be toilsome. Yet here Solomon suddenly paints a positive picture of work.
Work is toil if you see work itself the be all end all path to significance. If you are trying to make a name for yourself or derive some existential meaning of life from your work, you are going to be frustrated. I believe that God has wisely cursed work and made it to be toilsome in this fallen world for one reason - that we would find our significance in God alone.
However, to the one who finds his significance in God alone, suddenly work is redeemed. Work is no longer an idol and I’m not trying to extract something from it that’s not there, but now I can take it as it is, accept it as my lot during this life, and actually find joy in the knowledge that God has granted me to work and to enjoy the benefits of it.
The ancient word understood that good work was a conduit of joy. The Jewish conception of happiness understood that joy was derived from the blessed path of walking and working according to God’s moral purpose. Psalm 1 serves as the introduction to all the wisdom literature:
Psa. 1:1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. Psa. 1:3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Psa. 1:5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
And so Solomon’s counsel is consistent with Psalm 1. To the one who fears and find his significance in God, it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you are pursuing righteousness, whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. What this means is that I can find joy in whatever my current occupation is, as I work hard in a manner that pleases God, and do it all for His glory.
He’s saying that you don’t need to find your passion before you can rejoice in your work. He’s not saying don’t find your passion. He’s saying that whatever you hand finds to do, do it. Do it well, Do it with all your might. All of you have been given tasks to do through this life, remember that Solomon has spoken again and again throughout this book as your lot. Do it for the glory of God. For now is the time for living, for doing, for joy.
Yes there are difficult perplexities that we will face everyday of our life. We are not able to solve reality, but there is a way to respond to these realities, a path of joy: Fear God and do what is right. Walk confidently in the light with a clean conscience, having your sins forgive and with God on your side. Accept your lot from God’s hands: enjoy the close relationships that God has given you and work hard and contentedly at whatever God gives you each day to do.