Have you ever found yourself perplexed by the simple things in life? I don’t just mean the beauty of creation that is around us, that so often in rush to fulfil our daily existences we brush by the fading green of summer that is slowly being overcome by the vibrant oranges of autumn. I don’t even mean the heavenly choir of stars that fill the night sky and sing endless praises to their Creator if only we would step outside and look up, the small things in life we never notice. I mean right down to the smallest detail of timing, that makes you wonder why something has happened – The one time you are rushing into town and intending to speed ‘just a wee bit’ and you end up stuck behind a tractor the entire journey. On the 20th of January this year, I went out from my College to head to a local coffee shop to get some work done – I wanted to be focused it was a drive I had done about 20 times yet for some reason I took a wrong turn which leads to me becoming involved in an accident. Thankfully, no one was hurt, except my plans for that day, yet, even now I cannot help but wonder why God would allow such a thing to happen. Did he have a plan for it? or was it simply my stupidity that lead to that point – was there meaning in it? Or ever recently on the Tram on the way home from Dublin city centre I decided to open an old scripture reading app that I had no used in a month, so I reset the timer so it was at the point of my last reading being equal to my last day and read it. it was nothing overly spiritual – yet later that night someone who had been using the same app unknown to me asked me a deep theological question about the passage and we were able to talk about God and our journeys of faith. There is meaning in the smallest thing and God is concerned with the smallest detail in our lives. Today this is what our passage is about. Placing the microcosm of our lives into the macrocosm of God. Finding meaning in light of the cross.
Context and book
Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book similar to Job because it gives us a narrative that we can follow, It almost feels like an autobiography. Historically the book is thought to have been written by King Solomon, the truth is the authorship is unknown. Regardless, In Eccl 5:1-7 we are directed to approach the temple to listen to God because true meaning can only be found when all things are given their place under God. To understand the passage, we first need to consider a few earlier bits of the book. First, Eccl 1:1 which gives us the whole tone of the narrative, as the teacher declares in a poem ‘everything is meaningless.’ It seems quite a morbid statement, especially to be preaching about on a Sunday, Ecclesiastes is not saying: ‘life has no meaning’ because Proverbs tells us that life is full of beauty, meaning, purpose and wonder – Ecclesiastes is taking a different perspective looking at discovery of meaning through the eyes of the teacher who as he explores all that life can offer him: pleasure, great building projects, wealth, music, work, time, justice, oppression, the problem of death, companionship, government, leadership: that life is an enigma. All of these explorations follow the phrase “under the sun” which acts akin to a chapter end and in today’s two chapters we find ourselves at the last sun. The last phrase and this time it is different, it becomes more positive because the teacher is drawing to a close.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Life is unpredictable. 11:1-6
The first six verses call us to live wisely in light of the unpredictability of life, even by the standard of the world we live comfortably, yet the wise know anything can happen. The teacher calls us to be wise with our practices. In essence: make sure all our eggs are not in one basket because you don’t know what will happen to the basket. Interestingly, the first verse here is translated differently between some of the modern English versions. As a metaphor, it is without any contemporary parallel. The ESV translates it as:
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you, will find it after many days.
It could suggest one of four things:
- Marine commerce: Ship produce and trade to make a better profit.
- Generosity: In older Jewish and Christian customs it was taken to be a generous act and you would receive a return in other ways.
- Good financial practice: Spread your resource so when disaster comes you are not left exposed.
- Stupidity: Throwing bread on water is stupid, it will dissolve and will never be seen again.
But, as verse two shows us, regardless of the metaphor’s true meaning we are drawn to consider the uncertainty of life thus it is good to invest in seven or eight things because diversification gives protection against uncertainties. This is not biblical advice pertaining to stock market investment, it is simply a reminder that the only constant you can know in this world is God. Furthermore, we are given a picture in verse four of the person who is always waiting for the right time, always reading the sky to make sure the weather is right – yet getting nothing done. In a highly agricultural society the teacher is saying that if you spend all day looking up trying to predict the unpredictable, waiting for the perfect time to plough the fields, then you will never be able to get anything done as the New Living Translation puts it:
‘Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.’
The point is simply deal with the task at hand because there will never be a perfect moment to do anything. What in your life do you keep putting off that you simply need to sort out? What do you keep saying: “tomorrow oh tomorrow”, the true is there are times that we must simply bite the bullet! We know too well in Ireland that the weather is never perfect for farming, yet if our farmers waited for the two-month dry stretch in the summer then come Christmas they will still be waiting. Deal with what you have to today and then let tomorrow come because whatever it is God has a plan to use any situation no matter how small or frustrating to his glory and purpose and our benefit. Verse five calls us to rest in the mystery of Gods ways, we can’t understand his purpose and plans even in the smallest details and that is okay – it does not mean he is not in control. But resting in the mystery of God’s sovereignty is not a call to idleness it is a call to action as we see in verse six, Plant in the morning and keep busy in the evening because we don’t know when we will be successful. Time is a gift from God.
Find joy and Thankfulness in the Little Things (11:7-12:7)
11:7 to 12:1
The next section of the passage starts with a turn of phrase, that shows us that that the end is at hand. It is like reading an essay and hearing the phrase ‘in conclusion.’ You know what is coming. So up until now, the Sun has been associated with the frustrations of life – now the light of the day is something that brings joy. The key to enduring struggles is to be found in rejoicing and remembering. As we go on we are encouraged to rejoice no matter what stage of life we are at, whether we have more days ahead of us or behind us we are to rejoice because there is always something to rejoice in, never forgetting the truth that dark days will come. Verse 8 is a call for Godly wisdom: That we rejoice in the good moments but never hold that it will always remain as so, because no matter our bank balance, success or blood line hard times will come because that is the world we live in and true meaning can never be found in earthly things, only God through the cross of Christ. Furthermore, this is a call for Christians to consider the earthly things we seek meaning in, the things that have become idols – we must step back and give them to God and find our meaning in him. As we go on there is an imperative to the young that we live and find enjoyment but remember that proper joy can only truly be found within the moral boundaries established by God who will evaluate all human deeds according to his righteousness. At the end of both verse we are greeted with a phrase: ‘all is meaningless’ – this is not the cry of someone at the end of the rope, It is a reminder of the truth that we cannot grasp the meaning of things in and off ourselves.
Throughout the whole of this book the teacher’s methodology of investigation has been one of reason, experience and observation – the opposite of proverbs – where wisdom starts with God. Now the teacher draws us to remember God he compels us, to begin with, a fear of the Lord, not fear in the sense of unease but awe at who God is and what he has done for us. There are different ways suggested to understand the next section of verses were because we are aware of our own mortality we seek the wisdom of God. The metaphors used are hard to understand, but the common image used is a water receptacle and since water is a symbol of life, each of these metaphors probably represents the moment that our soul returns to God.
Conclusion and application.
As we come towards the end the Teacher steps off the stage and the Narrator comes out to finish off and we are shown that the teacher has taken us on an extraordinary journey of discovery. We see that the words of the wise are like goads ( long pointed sticks used to guide working oxen) wise words direct our lives and we would be foolish not to listen to them. Furthermore, we have seen the trouble the good teacher gets into because his life was not dependent on God. In verses 13 and 14 the narrator sums up the entire message of the book – ‘Fear God and Keep his commandments, for God will judge all things whether they are in the light of day, or shadows. Whether good or bad.’ What does this mean to us today as followers of Jesus to fear God? It means it is all about Jesus. The words we hear at the end of this passage are similar to the words Jesus speaks in Matthew chapter 10 Verse 28 where Jesus combines the themes of Fear of God and Judgment: “Do not fear those who can kill the body and not the soul but fear Him who can kill the body and the soul.” Fear in this sense is worship, It starts with your picture of God, it starts with you asking the question of yourself how big is God? Are you yet to grasp the wonderful and freeing truth that you are not the ruler of this unpredictable and complex Life: God the king, creator, sustainer of all existence is. If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and come to believe then these verses are a cry from the God who loves you and want’s you to enter into a personal relationship with him. A relationship that will allow you to enter the kingdom of heaven and know the fullness of meaning found in him. Because everything will be judged by God yet if you have come to Christ in faith then you stand in the assurance of these verses that you have already been vindicated by him. Christ has set you so live free and trust in him. Live trusting in the guidance of Christ, becoming dependent on his wisdom, Grace and providence as the Holy Spirit lives and works in you to make you more like Christ.
The entire book of Ecclesiastes can be summed up in the words Jesus speaks when asked what is the most important commandment he retorts “Hear (shema), O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Loin your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.‘’ This same love is the fear of God talked about in Ecclesiastes and us as Christians must love/fear God through the cross of Christ knowing that we cannot do it of ourselves. We come to Jesus declaring our need of grace and forgiveness of sin and ask him to send his helper the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit we are made more in the image of Christ and draw closer to him, we are able to love others the way God loves us so that they too can come to know Jesus Christ and the love God has for them. Are you willing to put all your eggs in one basket and accept that real meaning is only fond in Christ?